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also by W. H, Auden 


MOUNTAINS (Ariel Poems) 

Faber Paper Covered Editions 
edited by W. H. Auden 


with Christopher Isherwood 


with Chester Kallmann 


THE MAGIC FLUTE (translated by) 





and other essays 

24 Russell Square 

First published in England in mcmlxiii 
by Faber if Faber Limited 
24 Russell S(juare London W,C. i 
Second impression mcmlxiv 
Printed in Great Britain by 
Latimer Trend ir Co Ltd Whitstable 
All rights reserved 

Copyright, 1948, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954- © > 956 . 1957, 1958,1960, 
1962, by W. H. Auden 

The author wishes to thank the following for pemnssion to reprint material 
included in these essays: 

Jonathan Cape Ltd. for selection from “Chard Whitlow” from 
A Map of Verona and Other Poems. 

Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd. for selection from The Discovery of 
the Mind by Bruno Snell. 

Jonathan Cape Ltd. for selections from Complete Poems of Robert 
Frost. Copyright 1916, 1921, 1923. 1928, 1930, 1939, I947» 1949. 

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. for selections from The Bor^i Book of French 
Folk Tales, edited by Paul Delarue. 

Faber & Faber Ltd. for selection from The Collected Poems of 
Marianne Moore. Copyright 1935, I94it 1951 by Marianne Moore. 

Macmillan & Co. and Mrs. W. B. Yeats for lines from ‘'Nineteen 
Hundred and Nineteen” from Collected Poems of William Butler 
Yeats. Copyright 1928 by The Macmillan Company, copyright 1956 
by Bertha Georgie Yeats; for “The Scholars” from Collected Poems 
of William Butler Yeats. First published in Poetry in 1916. Copyright 
1944 by Bertha Georgie Yeats. 

Macmillan & Co., N.Y., for “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from 
Stratford'* from Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson. Copy- 
right 1916 by The Macmillan Company, copyright 1944 by Ruth 

John Murray Ltd. for lines from “In Westminster Abbey” from 
Collected Poems of John Betjeman. 

Laurence Pollinger Ltd. for selections from Miss Lonelyhearts by 
Nathanael West. Copyright 1933 by Nathanael West; and for The 
Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. Copyright 1939 by the Estate 
of Nathanael West. 

Oxford University Press for selection from Taliessin Through 
Logres by Charles Williams. 

Princeton University Press for selection from Mimesis by Eric 
Auerbach. Copyright 1953 by Princeton University Press. 

Secker & Warburg for selection from “The Burrow" from The 
Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka. Copyright 1936, 1937 by 
Heinr. Mercy Sohn, Prague; copyright 1946, 1948 by Schocken 
Books, Inc. 

Thames & Hudson for selections from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin 
Buber. Copyright 1947, 1948 by Schocken Books, Inc. 

Mrs. Helen Thomas for lines from “Home" by Edward Thomas. 

Laurence Pollinger Ltd. and the Estate of the late Mrs. Frieda 
Lawrence for selections from Collected Poems of D, H. Law^rence, 
Copyright 1929 by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith and 1957 
by Frieda Lawrence Ravagli; for selections from Birds, Beasts and 
Flowfers by D. H. Lawrence. Copyright 1923 by Thomas Seltzer, 
Inc. and 1951 by Frieda Lawrence; and for selections from Last 
Poems by D. H. Lawrence. Copyright 1933 by Frieda Lawrence. 

“The American Scene" reprinted with the permission of Charles Scribner's 
Sons from a reissue of The American Scene by Henry James. Copyright 
1946 by Charles Scribner's Sons. 

“Red Ribbon on a White Horse" reprinted with the permission of Charles 
Scribner's Sons from a reissue of Red Rihhon on a White Horse by Anzia 
Yezierska. Copyright 1950 by Anzia Yezierska. 

The article on page 209 appeared originally in The New Yorker. 



Three grateful memories: 

a home full of hooks, 
a childhood sfent in country 'provinces, 
a tutor in whom one could confide. 

We have Art 

in order that we may not perish from Truth 



It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much 
more money writing or talking about his art than he can by 
practicing it. All the poems I have written were written for 
love; naturally, when I have written one, I try to market it, 
but the prospect of a market played no role in its writing. 

On the other hand, I have never written a line of criticism 
except in response to a demand by others for a lecture, an 
introduction, a review, etc.; though I hope that some love went 
into their writing, I wrote them because I needed the money. 
I should like to thank the various publishers, editors, college 
authorities and, not least, the ladies and gentlemen who voted 
me into the Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, but for 
whose generosity and support I should never have been able to 
pay my bills. 

The trouble about writing commissioned criticism is that 
the relation between form and content is arbitrary; a lecture 
must take fifty-five minutes to deliver, an introduction must 
be so and so many thousand, a review so and so many hundred 
words long. Only rarely do the conditions set down conform 
exactly with one’s thought. Sometimes one feels cramped, 
forced to omit or oversimplify arguments; more often, all one 
really has to say could be put down in half the allotted space, 
and one can only try to pad as inconspicuously as possible. 



Moreover, in a number of articles which were not planned 
as a series biit written for diverse occasions, it is inevitable that 
one will often repeat oneself. 

A poem must be a closed system, hut there is something, in 
my opinion, lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism. In 
going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when 
possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic’s 
notebooks to his treatises. The order of the chapters, however, 
is deliberate, and I would like them to be read in sequence. 

w. H. A. 


Foreword xi 



Reading 3 

Writing 13 



Making, Knowing and Judging 31 

The Virgin &■ The Dynamo 6i 

The Poet & The City 72 



Hie et Ille 93 

Balaam and His Ass 107 

The Guilty Vicarage 146 

The I Without a Self 159 



The Globe 


The Princes Dog 


Interlude: The Wish Game 


Brothers & Others 


Interlude: West's Disease 


The Joker in the Pack 


Postscript: Infernal Science 




D. H. Lawrence 


Marianne Moore 




The American Scene 


Postscript: Rome v. Monticello 


Red Ribbon on a White Horse 


Postscript: The Almighty Dollar 


Robert Frost 


American Poetry 




Notes on the Comic 371 

Don Juan 386 

Dingley Dell &■ The Fleet 407 

Postscript: The Frivolous & The Earnest 429 

Genius & Apostle 433 

Postscript: Christianity & Art 456 



Notes on Music and Opera 465 

Cav &■ Pag 475 

Translating Opera Libretti (Written in collaboration 

with Chester Kallman) 483 

Music in Shakespeare 500 





A hook is a mirror: if an ass feets into it, you 
cant expect an apostle to look out. 


One only reads well that which one reads with 
some quite personal purpose. It may he to 
acquire some power. It can he out of hatred for 
the author. 


The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are 
never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, 
this is a lucky accident. 

In relation to a writer, most readers believe in the Double 
Standard: they may be unfaithful to him as often as they 
like, but he must never, never be unfaithful to them. 

To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are 
the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets 
literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when 


4 ] 

he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholar- 
ship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some 
great scholars have been poor translators. 

We often derive much profit from reading a hook in a differ- 
ent way from that which its author intended but only (once 
childhood is over) if we know that we are doing so. 

As readers, most of us, to some degree, are like those urchins 
who pencil mustaches on the faces of girls in advertisements. 

One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read 
in a number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that 
pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts 
to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, 
say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual 
fantasies, one is bored to tears. 

Though a W'ork of literature can be read in a number of ways, 
this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical 
order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some 
doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a 
novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, 
one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest 
literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, 
a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be 
read in an infinite number of ways. 

We cannot read an author for the first time in the same way 
that we read the latest book by an established author. In a 
new author, we tend to see either only his virtues or only his 
defects and, even if we do see both, we cannot see the rela- 
tion between them. In the case of an established author, if 
we can still read him at all, we know that we cannot enjoy 
the virtues we admire in him without tolerating the defects 
we deplore. Moreover, our judgment of an established author 
is never simply an aesthetic judgment. In addition to any 
literary merit it may have, a new book by him has a historic 
interest for us as the act of a person in whom we have long 
been interested. He is not only a poet or a novelist; he is also 
a character in our biography. 



A poet cannot read another poet, nor a noveli^ anodier 
novelist, without comparing meir work to his own. His 
judgments as he reads are of this kind: My God! My Great- 
Grandfath^l My Uncle! My Enemy! My Brother! My im- 
hecile. Brother! 

In literature, vulgarity is preferable to nullity, just as grocer’s 
port is preferable to distilled water. 

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of 
exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, 
it is with regret, not with pleasure. 

Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it 
is the least fallible. 

A child’s reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is 
undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between 
aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydream- 
ing. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds 
of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, 
but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it 
be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent 
looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats 
or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there 
are occasions when he has to deceive himself a litde; he has 
to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little 
more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and 
forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we 
are, which involves learning the difference between acci- 
dental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the 
necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot 
trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without 
making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a 
universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this 
period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another 
writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty 
and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” 
he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept 
the taste of my cultural milieu,” because, between twenty 


6 ] 

and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of 
his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have 
not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again 
become what it was when we were children, the proper guide 
to what we should read. 

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not 
be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related 
to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone 
else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, 
however objective we try to make them, are in part a rational- 
ization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective 
wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream 
of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing 
literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his 
readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his 
judgments. Accordingly, I must now give my answers to a 
questionnaire I once made up which provides the kind of 
information I should like to have myself when reading other 


Landscape ' 

Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region 
of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipi- 
tous and indented sea-coast. 



Ethnic origin of inhabitants 

Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight 
nordic predominance. 


Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected. 
Weights & Measures 

Irregular and complicated. No decimal system. 


[ 7 


Roman Cadiolic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of 
way. Lots of local saints. 

Size of Capital 

Plato's ideal figure, 5040 about right. 

Form of Government 

Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot. 

Sources of Natural Power 

Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil. 

Economic activities 

Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper 
mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture. 

Means of transport 

Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, canal barges, balloons. 
No automobiles or airplanes. 


State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. 
Domestic: Eighteenth Century British or American Colonial. 

Domestic Furniture and Equipment 

Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are 
as full of modern gadgets as possible. 

Formal Dress 

The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ’40’s. 

Sources of Public Information 

Gossip. Technical and l^med periodicals but no news- 

Public Statues 

Confined to famous defunct chefs. 

Public Entertainments 

Religious Processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical 
Ballet. No movies, radio or television. 


8 ] 

If I were to attempt to write down the names of all the poets 
and novelists for whose work I am really grateful because 
I know that if I had not read them my life would be poorer, 
the list would take up pages. But when I try to think of all 
the critics for whom I am really grateful, I find myself with 
a list of thirty-four names. Of these, twelve are German and 
only two French. Does this indicate a conscious bias? It does. 

If good literary critics are rarer than good poets or novelists, 
one reason is the nature of human egoism. A poet or a novelist 
has to learn to be humble in the face of his subject matter 
which is life in general. But the subject matter of a critic, 
before which he has to learn to be humble, is made up of 
authors, that is to say, of human individuals, and this kind 
of humility is much more difficult to acquire. It is far easier 
to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about 
it” — than to say — “Mr. As work is more important than any- 
thing I can say about it.” 

There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, 
but they do not become critics. 

Authors can be stupid enough, God knows, but they are not 
always quite so stupid as a certain kind of critic seems to 
think. The kind of critic, I mean, to whom, when he con- 
demns a work or a passage, the possibility never occurs that 
its author may have foreseen exactly what he is going to say. 

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, 
he can do me one or more of the following services: 

1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was 
hitherto unaware. 

2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or 
a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 

3) Show me relations between works of different ages 
and cultures which I could never have seen for myself 
because I do not know enough and never shall. 

4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my 
understanding of it. 

5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.” 



6) Throw light upon the relation of art tq life, tqicience, 

economics, ethics, religitm, etc. 

The first three of these services demand scholarship. A scholar 
is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the 
knowledge must be of value to others. One would not call a 
man who knew the Manhattan Telephone Directory by heart 
a scholar, because one cannot imagine circumstances in which 
he would acquire a pupil. Since scholarship implies a relation 
between one who knows more and one who knows less, it may 
be temporary; in relation to the public, every reviewer is, 
temporarily, a scholar, because he has read the book he is 
reviewing and the public have not. Though the knowledge 
a scholar possesses must be potentially valuable, it is not 
necessary that he recognize its value himself; it is always 
possible that the pupil to whom he imparts his knowledge 
has a better sense of its value than he. In general, when 
reading a scholarly critic, one profits more from his quotations 
than from his comments. 

The last three services demand, not superior knowledge, 
but superior insight. A critic shows superior insight if me 
questions he raises are fresh and important, however much 
one may disagree with his answers to them. Few readers, 
probably, find themselves able to accept Tolstoi’s conclusions 
in What Is Art?, but, once one has read the book, one can 
never again ignore the questions Tolstoi raises. 

The one thing I most emphatically do not ask of a critic is 
that he tell me what I ought to approve of or condemn. I 
have no objection to his telling me what works and authors 
he likes and dislikes; indeed, it is useful to know this for, 
from his expressed preferences about works which I have 
read, I learn how likely I am to agree or disagree with his 
verdicts on works which I have not. But let him not dare to 
lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose 
to read is mine, and nobody else on earth can do it for me. 

The critical opinions of a writer should always be taken 
with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are mani- 
festations of his debate with himself as to what he should 


lo ] 

do next and what he should avoid. Moreover, unlike a 
scientist, he is usually even more ignorant of what his col- 
leagues are doing than is the general public. A poet over 
thirty may still be a voracious reader, but it is unlikely that 
much of what he reads is modern poetry. 

Very few of us can truthfully boast that we have never con- 
demned a book or even an author on hearsay, hut quite a lot 
of us that we have never praised one we had not read. 

The injunction "Resist not evil but overcome evil with good” 
may in many spheres of life be impossible to obey literally, 
but in the sphere of the arts it is common sense. Bad art is 
always with us, but any given work of art is always bad in 
a period way; the particular kind of badness it exhibits will 
pass away to be succeeded by some other kind. It is unneces- 
sary, therefore, to attack it, because it will perish anyway. 
Had Macaulay never written his review of Robert Montgom- 
ery, we would not today be still under the illusion that 
Montgomery was a great poet. The only sensible procedure 
for a critic is to keep silent about works which he believes 
to be bad, while at the same time vigorously campaigning 
for those which he believes to be good, especially if they are 
being neglected or underestimated by the public. 

Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly 

Some critics argue that it is their moral duty to expose the 
badness of an author because, unless this is done, he may 
corrupt other writers. To be sure, a young writer can be 
led astray, deflected, that is, from his true path, by an older, 
but he is much more likely to be seduced by a good writer 
than by a bad one. The more powerful and original a writer, 
the more dangerous he is to lesser talents who are trying to 
find themselves. On the other hand, works which were in 
themselves poor have often proved a stumulus to the imagina- 
tion and become the indirect cause of good work in others. 

You do not educate a person’s palate by telling him that what 
he has been in the habit of eating — ^watery, overboiled cab- 

Reading [ 1 1 

ba^e, let us say — is disgusting, but by persuadihg him to txy 
of vegetables which have been properly cooked. With 
some people, it is true, you seem to get quicker reslilts by 
telling them — “Only vulgar people like overcooked cabbage; 
the best people like cabbage as the Chinese cook it” — ^but 
the results are less likely to be lasting. 

If, when a reviewer whose taste I trust condemns a book, I 
feel a certain relief, this is only because so many books are 
published that it is a relief to think — “Well, here, at least, 
is one I do not have to bother about.” But had he kept silent, 
the effect would have been the same. 

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad 
for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest 
I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, 
from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can con- 
trive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off. 

There is one evil that concerns literature which should never 
be passed over in silence but be continually publicly attacked, 
and that is corruption of the language, for writers cannot in- 
vent their own language and are dependent upon the language 
they inherit so that, if it be corrupt, they must be corrupted. 
But the critic who concerns himself with this evil must attack 
it at its source, which is not in works of literature but in the 
misuse of language by the man-in-the-street, journalists, poli- 
ticians, etc. Furthermore, he must be able to practice what he 
preaches. How many critics in England or America today are 
masters of their native tongue as Karl Kraus was a master of 

One cannot blame the reviewers themselves. Most of them, 
probably, would much prefer to review only those books 
which, whatever their faults, they believe to be worth reading 
but, if a regular reviewer on one of the big Sunday papers 
were to obey his inclination, at least one Sunday in three his 
column would be empty. Again, any conscientious critic who 
has ever had to review a new volume of poetry in a limited 
space knows that the only fair thing to do would be to 


12 ] 

give a series of quotations without comment but, if he did so, 
his editor would complain that he was not earning his money. 

Reviewers may justly be blamed, however, for their habit of 
labeling and packaging authors. At first critics classified 
authors as Ancients, that is to say, Greek and Latin authors, 
and Moderns, that is to say, every post-Classical Author. Then 
they classified them by eras, the Augustans, the Victorians, 
etc., and now they classify them by decades, the writers of the 
'30's, '40’s, etc. Very soon, it seems, they will be labeling 
authors, like automobiles, by the year. Already the decade 
classification is absurd, for it suggests that authors conveniently 
stop writing at the age of thirty-five or so. 

“Contemporary” is a much abused term. My contemporaries 
are simply those who are on earth while I am alive, whether 
they be babies or centenarians. 

A writer, or, at least, a poet, is always being asked by people 
who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The ques- 
tion is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. 
Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been writ- 
ten especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I 
don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such 
readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with 
passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of 
every author. 


It is the author’s aim to say once and emphati- 
cally, "He said." 


The art of literature, vocal or written, is to adjust 
the language so that it embodies what it 


All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job 
which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like 
a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can 
be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “in- 
spiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a 
phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every 
“original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something 
a bit shady about him, like a gambler or a medium. 

Literary gatherings, cocktail parties and the like, are a social 
nightmare because writers have no “shop” to talk. Lawyers 
and doctors can entertain each other with stories about in- 


14 1 

teresting cases, about experiences, that is to say, related to 
their professional interests but yet impersonal and outside 
themselves. Writers have no impersonal professional interests. 
The literary equivalent of talking shop would be writers recit- 
ing their own work at each other, an unpopular procedure for 
which only very young writers have the nerve. 

No poet or novelist wishes he were the only one who ever 
lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, 
and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted. 

In theory, the author of a good book should remain anony- 
mous, for it is to his work, not to himself, that admiration is 
due. In practice, this seems to be impossible. However, the 
praise and public attention that writers sometimes receive do 
not seem to be as fatal to them as one might expect. Just as a 
good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a gen- 
uine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and 
starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past 
work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its 
virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes 
him proud. 

Writers can be guilty of every kind of human conceit but one, 
the conceit of the social worker: “We are all here on earth to 
help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t 

When a successful author analyzes the reasons for his success, 
he generally underestimates the talent he was bom with, and 
overestimates his skill in employing it. 

Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine 
writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his 
work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life 
he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, 
but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he re- 
spects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure uni- 
versal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally 
distributed among all men. 


[ 15 

When some obvious booby tells me he has liked a^ poem of 
mine, I feel as if I had picked his pocket. 

Writers, poets especially, have an odd relation to the public 
because dieir medium, language, is not, like the paint of the 
painter or the notes of the composer, reserved for their use but 
is the common property of the linguistic group to which they 
belong. Lots of people are willing to admit that they don t 
understand painting or music, but very few indeed who have 
been to school and learned to read advertisements will admit 
that they don’t understand English. As Karl Kraus said: “The 
public doesn’t understand German, and in Journalese I can’t 
tell them so.” 

How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judged solely 
by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or 
rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve. No cashier 
writes a letter to the press complaining about the incompre- 
hensibility of Modem Mathematics and comparing it un- 
favorably with the good old days when mathematicians were 
content to paper irregularly shaped rooms and fill bathtubs 
without closing the waste pipe. 

To say that a work is inspired means that, in the judgment of 
its author or his readers, it is better than they could reasonably 
hope it would be, and nothing else. 

All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no 
artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait 
until what he believes to be a good idea for a work “comes” to 
him. Among those works which are failures because their 
initial conceptions were false or inadequate, the number of 
self-commissioned works may well be greater than the number 
commissioned by patrons. 

The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the 
process of composition is as much an indication of the value 
of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is 
an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very 
little indication. 


i6 ] 

The Oracle claimed to make prophecies and give good advice 
about the future; it never pretended to be giving poetry read- 

If poems could be created in a trance without the conscious 
participation of the poet, the writing of poetiy would be so 
boring or even unpleasant an operation that only a substantial 
reward in money or social prestige could induce a man to be a 
poet. From the manuscript evidence, it now appears that 
G)leridge's account of the composition of “Kubla Khan" was a 

It is true that, when he is writing a poem, it seems to a poet 
as if there were two people involved, his conscious self and a 
Muse whom he has to woo or an Angel with whom he has to 
wrestle, but, as in an ordinary wooing or wrestling match, his 
role is as important as Hers. The Muse, like Beatrice in Much 
Ado, is a spirited girl who has as litde use for an abject suitor 
as she has for a vulgar brute. She appreciates chivalry and good 
manners, but she despises those who will not stand up to her 
and takes a cruel delight in telling them nonsense and lies 
which the poor little things obediently write down as "in- 
spired” truth. 

When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly 
dipped my pen into the medicine hottle instead of the 
ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it with sand (blot- 
ting paper had not been invented then) it took the form 
of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the 
effect which the change from G minor to G major tvould 
make, and to this blot all the effect — if any — is due. 

(Rossini to Louis Engel.) 

Such an act of judgment, distinguishing between Chance 
and Providence, deserves, surely, to be called an inspiration. 

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to 
whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censor- 
ate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a 
practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon 

Writing [ *7 

and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and retunjing their 
dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all 
poetry rubbish. 

In the course of many centuries a few laborsaving devices have 
been introduced into the mental kitchen — alcohol, coflFee, 
tobacco, Benzedrine, etc. — ^but these are very crude, con- 
stantly breaking down, and liable to injure the cook. Literary 
composition in the twentieth century a.d. is pretty much what 
it was in the twentieth century b.c. : nearly everj’thing has still 
to be done by hand. 

Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they 
enjoy the smell of their own farts. Much as I loathe the type- 
writer, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Type- 
script is so impersonal and hideous to look at that, if I type out 
a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I 
looked through it in manuscript. When it comes to a poem by 
somebody else, the severest test I know of is to write it out in 
longhand. The physical tedium of doing this ensures that the 
slightest defect will reveal itself; the hand is constantly look- 
ing for an excuse to stop. 

Most artists are sincere and. most art is had, though some in- 
sincere (sincerely insincere) works can be quite good. 
(STRAVINSKY.) Sincerity is like sleep. Normally, one should 
assume that, of course, one will be sincere, and not give the 
question a second thought. Most writers, however, suffer oc- 
casionally from bouts of insincerity as men do from bouts of 
insomnia. The remedy in both cases is often quite simple: in 
the case of the latter, to change one’s diet, in the case of the 
former, to change one’s company. 

The schoolmasters of literature frown on affectations of style 
as silly and unhealthy. Instead of frowning, they ought to 
laugh indulgently. Shakespeare makes fun of the Euphuists in 
Love’s Labour’s Lost and in Hamlet, but he owed them a great 
deal and he knew it. Nothing, on the face of it, could have 
been more futile than the attempt of Spenser, Harvey and 
others to be good little humanists and write English verse in 



classical meters, yet, but for their folly, many of Campion’s 
most beautiful songs and the choruses in Samson Agonistes 
would never have been written. In literature, as in life, affec- 
tation, passionately adopted and loyally persevered in, is one 
of the chief forms of self-discipline by which mankind has 
raised itself by its own bootstraps. 

A mannered style, that of Gongora or Henry James, for ex- 
ample, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry 
it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception who can. 

When a reviewer describes a book as “sincere,” one knows im- 
mediately that it is a) insincere (insincerely insincere) and 
b) badly written. Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, 
meaning authenticity, is, however, or ought to be, a writer’s 
chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how 
good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, 
not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, 
whether something he has written is authentic — in his hand- 
writing— or a forgery. 

The most painful of all experiences to a poet is to find that a 
poem of his which he knows to be a forgery has pleased the 
public and got into the anthologies. For all he knows or cares, 
the poem may be quite good, but that is not the point; he 
should not have written it. 

The work of a young writer — W either is the classic example — 
is sometimes a therapeutic act. He finds himself obsessed by 
certain ways of feeling and thinking of which his instinct tells 
him he must be rid before he can discover his authentic 
interests and sympathies, and the only way by which he can be 
rid of them forever is by surrendering to them. Once he has 
done this, he has developed the necessary antibodies which 
will make him immune for the rest of his life. As a rule, the 
disease is some spiritual malaise of his generation. If so, he 
may, as Goethe did, find himself in an embarrassing situation. 
What he wrote in order to exorcise certain feelings is en- 
thusiastically welcomed by his contemporaries because it ex- 
presses just what they feel but, unlike him, they are perfectly 


I >9 

happy to feel in this way; for the moment they regard him as 
their spokesman. Time passes. Having gotten the poison out 
of his system, the writer turns to his true interests which are 
not, and never were, those of his early admirers, who now pur- 
sue him with cries of “Traitor!” 

The intellect of man is forced to choose 
Perfection of the life or of the work, (yeats.) 

This is untrue; perfection is possible in neither. All one can 
say is that a writer who, like all men, has his personal weak- 
nesses and limitations, should be aware of them and try his 
best to keep them out of his work. For every writer, there are 
certain subjects which, because of defects in his character and 
his talent, he should never touch. 

What makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in 
poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and be- 
come interesting possibilities. The reader does not have to 
share the beliefs expressed in a poem in order to enjoy it. Know- 
ing this, a poet is constantly tempted to make use of an idea 
or a belief, not because he believes it to be true, but because he 
sees it has interesting poetic possibilities. It may not, perhaps, 
be absolutely necessary that he believe it, but it is certainly 
necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they 
can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than 
as a mere poetic convenience. 

The integrity of a writer is more threatened by appeals to his 
social conscience, his political or religious convictions, than by 
appeals to his cupidity. It is morally less confusing to be goosed 
by a traveling salesman than by a bishop. 

Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to 
aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. 
There is a certain kind of person who is so dominated by the 
desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to 
test those around him by tiresome behavior; what he says and 
does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, 
but because it is his remark, his act. Does not this explain a 
good deal of avant-garde art? 


20 ] 

Slavery is so intolerable a CHsndition that the slave can hardly 
escape deluding himself into thinking that he is choosing to 
obey his master’s commands when, in fact, he is obliged to. 
Most slaves of habit suffer from this delusion and so do some 
writers, enslaved by an all too “personal” style. 

"Let me think: was I the same when I got up this 
morning . . . But if I’m not the same, the next question 
is "Who in the world am Z?’ . . . I’m sure I’m not Ada . . . 
for her hair goes in such long ringlets and mine doesn’t 
go in ringlets at all; and I’m sure I can’t he Mabel, for I 
know cdl sorts of things, and she, oh! she knows such a 
very little! Beside she’s she and I’m I and — oh dear, how 
puzzling it all is! I’ll try if I know all the things I used to 
know. . . .” Her eyes filled with tears . . . ; "I must he 
Mabel after all, and I shall have to go and live in that 
poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, 
and oh! — ever so many lessons to learn! No, I’ve made 
up my mind about it: if I’m Mabel, I’ll stay down here!’’ 

(Alice in Wonderland.) 

At the next peg the Queen turned again and this time 
she said: "Speak in French when you can’t think of the 
English for a thing — turn your toes out as you walk — 
and remember who you are.’’ 

(Through the Looking-Glass.) 

Most writers, except the supreme masters who transcend all 
systems of classification are either Alices or Mabels. For ex- 









Jane Austen 






Virginia Woolf 


E. M. Forster 


Robert Graves 



[ II 

"Orthodoxy,” said a real Alice of a bishop, “is reticence.” 

Except when used as historical labels, the terms classical and 
romantic axe misleading terms for two poetic parties, the Aris- 
tocratic and the Democratic, which have always existed and 
to one of which every writer belongs, though he may switch 
his party allegiance or, on some specific issue, refuse to obey 
his Party Whip. 

The Aristocratic Principle as regards subject matter: 

No subject matter shall be treated by poets which poetry 
cannot digest. It defends poetry against didacticism and 

The Democratic Principle as regards subject matter: 

No subject matter shall be excluded by poets which 
poetry is capable of digesting. It defends poetry against 
limited or stale conceptions of what is “poetic.” 

The Aristocratic Principle as regards treatment: 

No irrelevant aspects of a given subject shall be ex- 
pressed in a poem which treats it. It defends poetry 
against barbaric vagueness. 

The Democratic Principle as regards treatment: 

No relevant aspect of a given subject shall remain un- 
expressed in a poem which treats it. It defends poetry 
against decadent triviality. 

Every work of a writer should be a first step, but this will 
be a false step unless, whether or not he realize it at the 
time, it is also a further step. When a writer is dead, one 
ought to be able to see that his various works, taken together, 
make one consistent oettvre. 

It takes little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, 
a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that 

The greatest writer cannot see through a brick wall but, un- 
like the rest of us, he does not build one. 

Only a minor talent can be a perfect gentleman; a major 
talent is always more than a bit of a cad. Hence the importance 
of minor writers — as teachers of good manners. Now and 


22 ] 

again, an exquisite minor work can make a master feel 
thoroughly ashamed of himself. 

The poet is the father of his poem; its mother is a language: 
one could list poems as race horses are listed — out of L by P. 

A poet has to woo, not only his own Muse but also Dame 
Philology, and, for the beginner, the latter is the more im- 
portant. As a rule, the sign that a beginner has a genuine 
original talent is that he is more interested in playing with 
words than in saying something original; his attitude is that 
of the old lady, quoted by E. M. Forster — "How can I know 
what I think till I see what I say?” It is only later, when he 
has wooed and won Dame Philology, that he can give his 
entire devotion to his Muse. 

Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, etc., are like servants. If the 
master is fair enough to win their affection and firm enough 
to command their respect, the result is an orderly happy house- 
hold. If he is too tyrannical, they give notice; if he lacks au- 
thority, they become slovenly, impertinent, drunk and 

The poet who vnites “free” verse is like Robinson Crusoe 
on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and 
darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly 
independence produces something original and impressive, 
but more often the result is squalor — dirty sheets on the 
unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor. 

There are some poets, Kipling for example, whose relation 
to language reminds one of a drill sergeant: the words are 
taught to wash behind their ears, stand properly at attention 
and execute complicated maneuvers, but at the cost of never 
being allowed to think for themselves. There are others, 
Swinburne, for example, who remind one more of Svengali: 
under their hypnotic suggestion, an extraordinary perform- 
ance is put on, not by raw recruits, but by feeble-minded 



Due to the Curse of Babel, poetry is the most provincial of 
the arts, but today, when civilization is becoming monoto- 
nously the same all the world over, one feels inclined to regard 
this as a blessing rather than a curse: in poetry, at least, 
there cannot be an “International Style.” 

My language is the universal whore whom I have to make 
into a virgin, (karl kraus.) It is both the glory and the 
shame of poetry that its medium is not its private property, 
that a poet cannot invent his words and that words are 
products, not of nature, but of a human society which uses 
them for a thousand different purposes. In modem societies 
where language is continually being debased and reduced to 
nonspeech, the poet is in constant danger of having his ear 
cormpted, a danger to which the painter and the composer, 
whose media are their private property, are not exposed. On 
the other hand he is more protected than they from another 
modern peril, that of solipsist subjectivity; however esoteric 
a poem may be, the fact that all its words have meanings 
which can be looked up in a dictionary makes it testify to 
the existence of other people. Even the language of Finnegans 
Wake was not created by Joyce ex nihilo; a purely private 
verbal world is not possible. 

The difference between verse and prose is self-evident, but 
it is a sheer waste of time to look for a definition of the 
difference between poetry and prose. Frost’s definition of 
poetry as the untranslatable element in language looks plausi- 
ble at first sight but, on closer examination, will not quite do. 
In the first place, even in the most rarefied poetry, there 
are some elements which are translatable. The sound of 
the words, their rhythmical relations, and all meanings and 
association of meanings which depend upon sound, like 
rhymes and puns, are, of course, untranslatable, but poetry 
is not, like music, pure sound. Any elements in a poem whicn 
are not based on verbal experience are, to some degree, 
translatable into another tongue, for example, images, similes 
and metaphors which are drawn from sensory experience. 
Moreover, because one characteristic that all men, whatever 


24 ] 

their culture, have in common is uniqueness — every man 
is a member of a class of one — the unique perspective on 
the world which every gemiine poet has survives translation. 
If one takes a poem by Goethe and a poem by Holderlin and 
makes literal prose cribs of them, every reader will recognize 
that the two poems were written by two different people. In 
the second place, if speech can never become music, neither 
can it ever become algebra. Even in the most “prosy” language, 
in informative and technical prose, there is a personal element 
because language is a personal creation. Ne pas se pencher 
au dehors has a different feeling tone from Nichthinauslehnen. 
A purely poetic language would be unleamable, a purely 
prosaic not worth learning. 

Valdry bases his definitions of poetry and prose on the differ- 
ence between the gratuitous and the useful, play and work, 
and uses as an analogy the difference between dancing and 
walking. But this will not do either. A commuter may walk 
to his suburban station every morning, but at the same time 
he may enjoy the walk for its own sake; the fact that his 
walk is necessary does not exclude the possibility of its also 
being a form of play. Vice versa, a dance does not cease 
to be play if it is also believed to have a useful purpose like 
promoting a good harvest. 

If French poets have been more prone than English to fall 
into the heresy of thinking that poetry ought to be as much 
like music as possible, one reason may be that, in traditional 
French verse, sound effects have always played a much more 
important role than they have in English verse. The English- 
speaking peoples have always felt that the difference between 
poetic speech and the conversational speech of everyday 
should be kept small, and, whenever English poets have felt 
that the gap between poetic and ordinary speech was grow- 
ing too wide, there has been a stylistic revolution to bring 
them closer again. In English verse, even in Shakespeare’s 
grandest rhetorical passages, the ear is always aware of its 
relation to everyday speech. A good actor must — alas, today 
he too seldom does — make the audience hear Shakespeare’s 


[ 25 

lines as verse not prose, but if he tries to make the verse 
sound like a different language, he will make himself ridic- 

But French poetry, both in the way it is written and the 
way it is recited, has emphasized and gloried in the difference 
between itself and ordinary speech; in French drama, verse 
and prose are different languages. Valery quotes a contempo- 
rary description of Rachel’s powers of declamation; in reciting 
she could and did use a range of two octaves, from F below 
Middle C to F in alt; an actress who tried to do the same 
with Shakespeare as Rachel did with Racine would be laughed 
off the stage. 

One can read Shakespeare to oneself without even mentally 
hearing the lines and be very moved; indeed, one may easily 
find a performance disappointing because almost anyone 
with an understanding of English verse can speak it better 
than the average actor and actress. But to read Racine to 
oneself, even, I fancy, if one is a Frenchman, is like reading 
the score of an opera when one can hardly play or sing; one 
can no more get an adequate notion of Phedre without having 
heard a great performance, than one can of Tristan und Isolde 
if one has never heard a great Isolde like Leider or Flagstad. 

(Monsieur St. John Perse tells me that, when it comes 
to everyday speech, it is French which is the more monotonous 
and English which has the wider range of vocal inflection.) 

I must confess that French classical tragedy strikes me as 
being opera for the unmusical. When I read the Hiffolytus, 
I can recognize, despite all differences, a kinship between 
the world of Euripides and the world of Shakespeare, but 
the world of Racine, like the world of opera, seems to be an- 
other planet altogether. Euripides’ Aphrodite is as concerned 
with fish and fowl as she is with human beings; Racine’s 
Venus is not only unconcerned with animals, she takes no 
interest in the Lower Orders. It is impossible to imagine any 
of Racine's characters sneezing or wanting to go to the bath- 
room, for in his world there is neither weather nor nature. 
In consequence, the passions by which his characters are 


26 ] 

consumed can only exist, as it were, on stage, the creation 
of the magnificent speech and the grand gestures of the 
actors and actresses who endow them with nesh and blood. 
This is also the case in opera, but no speaking voice, however 
magnificent, can hope to compete, in expressiveness through 
sound, with a great singing voice backed by an orchestra. 

Whenever -people talk to me about the weather, I always feel 
certain that they mean something else, (oscar wilde.) The 
only kind of speech which approximates to the symbolist’s 
poetic ideal is polite tea table conversation, in which the 
meaning of the banalities uttered depends almost entirely 
upon vocal infiections. 

Owing to its superior power as a mnemonic, verse is superior 
to prose as a medium for didactic instruction. Those who 
condemn didacticism must disapprove a fortiori of didactic 
prose; in verse, as the Alka-Seltzer advertisements testify, 
die didactic message loses half its immodesty. Verse is also 
certainly the equal of prose as a medium for the lucid exposi- 
tion of ideas; in skillful hands, the form of the verse can 
parallel and reinforce the steps of the logic. Indeed, contrary 
to what most people who have inherited the romantic con- 
ception of poetry believe, the danger of argument in verse 
— ^Pope's Essay on Man is an example — is that the verse may 
make the ideas too clear and distinct, more Cartesian than 
they really are. 

On the other hand, verse is unsuited to controversy, to 
proving some truth or belief which is not universally accepted, 
because its formal nature cannot but convey a certain skepti- 
cism about its conclusions. 

Thirty days hath September, 

April, June and November 

is valid because nobody doubts its truth. Were there, however, 
a party who passionately denied it, the lines would be power- 
less to convince him because, formally, it would make no 
difference if the lines ran: 


[ 17 

Thirty days hath September, 

August, May and December. 

Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the 
arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling 
the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate. 

“The unacknowledged legislators of the world” describes 
the secret police, not the poets. 

Catharsis is properly effected, not by works of art, but bv 
religious rites. It is also effected, usually improperly, by bull- 
fights, professional football matches, bad movies, military bands 
and monster rallies at which ten thousand girl guides form 
themselves into a model of the national 

The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miser- 
able and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: 
“For God’s sake stop singing and do something useful like 
putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,” what just reason 
could he give for refusing? But nobody says this. The self- 
appointed unqualified nurse says: “You are to sing the patient 
a song which will make him believe that I, and I alone, can 
cure him. If you can’t or won’t, I shall confiscate your passport 
and send you to the mines.” And the poor patient in his 
delirium cries: “Please sing me a song which will give me 
sweet dreams instead of nightmares. If you succeed, I will 
give you a penthouse in New York or a ranch in Arizona.” 


The Dyer’s Hand 


The art of life, of a poet’s life, is, not having 
anything to do, to do something. 


Even the greatest of that long line of scholars and poets who 
have held this chair before me — ^when I recall the names of 
some, I am filled with fear and trembling — must have asked 
themselves: “What is a Professor of Poetry? How can Poetry 
be ‘professed?” 

I can imagine one possible answer, though unfortunately 
it is not the right one. I should he feeling less uneasy at this 
moment than I do, if the duties of the Professor of Poetry 
were to produce, as occasion should demand, an epithalamium 
for the nuptials of a Reader in Romance Languages, an 

*^An Inaugural Lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 
II June 1956. 

1 The Dyer’s Hand 

elegy on a deceased Ginon of Christ Church, a May-day 
Masque for Somerville or an election ballad for his successor. 
I should at least be working in the medium to which I am 

But these are not his duties. His primary duty is to give 
lectures — ^which presupposes that he knows something which 
his audience does not. You have chosen for your new Professor 
s(»neone who has no more right to the learned garb he is 
wearing than he would have to a clerical collar. One of his 
secondary duties is to deliver every other year an oration in 
Latin. You have chosen a barbarian who cannot write in that 
tongue and does not know how to pronounce it. Even 
barbarians have their sense of honor and I must take this 
public opportunity to say that, for the alien sounds I shall utter 
at Encaenia, my ''affable familiar ghost” has been Mr. J. G. 
Griffith of Jesus. 

But it is my primary duty which I must attempt to do this 
afternoon. If I am in any way to deserve your extraordinary 
choice for what one of the noblest and most learned of my 
predecessors so aptly called The Siege Perilous, then I must 
find some topic about which I cannot help knowing something 
simply because I have wnritten some poems, and, for an 
inaugural lecture, this topic should be of general and, if 
possible, central concern to the verbal Art of Numbers. 

Many years ago, there appeared in Punch a joke which I 
have heard attributed to the scholar and poet A. E. Housman. 
The cartoon showed two middle-aged English examiners tak- 
ing a country stroll in spring. And the caption ran: 

FIRST B. E. O cuckoo shall I call thee bird 
Or but a wandering voice? 

SECXtND B. B. State the alternative preferred 
With reasons for your choice. 

At first reading this seems to he a satire on examiners. But 
is it? The moment I try to answer the question, I find myself 
thinking: "It has an answer and if Wordsworth had put the 
question to himself instead of to the reader, he would have 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 33 

deleted hird as redundant. His inner exaipiner roust have 
been asleep at the time.” 

Even if poems were often written in trances, poets would 
still accept responsibility for them by signing their names 
and taking the credit. They cannot claim oracular immunity. 
Admirers of “Kubla Khan,” the only documented case of a 
trance poem which we possess, should not lighdy dismiss 
what Coleridge, who was, after all, a great critic, says in his 
introductory note: 

The following fragment is here published at the re- 
quest of a poet of great and deserved celebrity (Lord 
Byron) ancl, as far as the Author’s own opinions are 
concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on 
the grounds of any supposed poetic merits. 

It has, of course, extraordinary poetic merits, but Coleridge 
was not being falsely modest. He saw, I think, as a reader 
can see, that even the fragment that exists is disjointed and 
would have had to be worked on if he ever completed the 
poem, and his critical conscience felt on its honor to admit 

It seems to me, then, that this might be a possible topic. 
Anyone who writes poetry ought to have something to say 
about this critic who is only interested in one author and 
only concerned with works that do not yet exist. To dis- 
tinguish him from the critic who is concerned with the al- 
ready existing works of others, let us call him the Censor. 

How does the Censor get his education? How does his at- 
titude towards the literature of the past differ from that of 
the scholarly critic? If a poet should take to writing criticism, 
what help to him in that activity are the experiences of his 
Censor? Is there any truth in Dryden’s statement: “Poets 
themselves are the most proper, though not, I conclude, the 
only critics”? 

In trying to answer these questions, I shall be compelled, 
frmn time to time, to give autobiographical illustrations. This 
is regrettable but unavoidable. I have no other guinea pig. 

The Dyer’s Hand 

34 1 


I began writing poetry myself because one Sunday afternoon 
in March 1922, a friend suggested that I should: the 
thought had never occurred^ to me. I scarcely knew any 
poems — The English Hymnal, the Psalms, Struwwelpeter and 
die mnemonic rhymes in Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer are 
about all I remember — and I took little interest in what is 
called Imaginative Literature. Most of my reading had been 
related to a private world of Sacred Objects. Aside from a 
few stories like George Macdonald's The Princess and the 
Goblin and Jules Verne’s The Child of the Cavern, the sub- 
jects of which touched upon my obsessions, my favorite books 
bore such titles as Underground Life, Machinery for Metal- 
liferous Mines, Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and 
Alston Moor, and my conscious purpose in reading them had 
been to gain information about my sacred objects. At the 
time, therefore, the suggestion that I write poetry seemed like 
a revelation from heaven for which nothing in my past could 

Looking back, however, I now realize that I had read 
the technological prose of my favorite books in a peculiar way. 
A word like -pyrites, for example, was for me, not simply an 
indicative sign; it was the Proper Name of a Sacred Being, 
so that, when I heard an aunt pronounce it pirrits, I was 
shocked. Her pronunciation was more than wrong, it was ugly. 
Ignorance was impiety. 

It was Edward Lear, I believe,* who said that the true test 
of imagination is the ability to name a cat, and we are told 
in the first chapter of Genesis that the Lord brought to un- 
fallen Adam all the creatures that he might name them and 
whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the 
name thereof, which is to say, its Proper Name. Here Adam 
plays the role of the Proto-poet, not the Proto-prosewriter. A 
Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly and 
this aptness must be publicly recognizable. It is curious to 
observe, for instance, that when a person has been christened 

* 1 was wrong: it was Samuel Butler. 

Making, Knowing and Judg^g [ 35 

inaptly, he and his friends instinctively call hiny by some 
other name. Like a line of poetry, a Proper Name is untrans* 
latable. Language is prosaic to the degree that “It does 
not matter what particular word is associated with an idea, 
provided the association once ^ade is permanent.” Language 
is poetic to the degree that it does matter. 

The power of verse [writes VaUry] is derived from ah 
indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. 
Indefinable is essential to the definition. The harmony 
ought not to be definable; when it can be defined it is 
imitative harmony and that is not good. The impossibility 
of defining the relation, together with the impossibili^ 
of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line. 

The poet is someone, says Mallarm^, who "de plusieurs 
vocables refait un mot total," and the most poetical of all 
scholastic disciplines is, surely. Philology, the study of lan- 
guage in abstraction from its uses, so that words become, 
as it were, litde lyrics about themselves. 

Since Proper Names in the grammatical sense refer to 
unique objects, we cannot judge their aptness without per- 
sonal acquaintance with what they name. To know whether 
Old Foss was an apt name for Lear’s cat, we should have 
had to have known them both. A line of poetry like 

A drop of water in the breaking gulf 

is a name for an experience we all know so that we can 
judge its aptness, and it names, as a Proper Name cannot, re- 
lations and actions as well as things. But Shakespeare and 
Lear are both using language in the same way and, I believe, 
for the same motive, but into that I shall go later. My present 
point is that, if my friend’s suggestion met with such an 
unexpected response, the reason may have been that, without 
knowing it, I had been enjoying the poetic use of language 
for a long time. 

A beginner’s efforts cannot be called bad or imitative. They 
are imaginary. A bad poem has this or that fault which can 
be pointed out; an imitative poem is a recognizable imitation 

The Dyer's Hand 

36 ] 

of this or that poem, this or that poet. But about an imaginary 
poem no criticism can be made since it is an imitation of 
poetry-in-general. Never again will a poet feel so inspired, 
so certain of genius, as he feels in these first days as his 
pencil flies across the page. Yet something is being learned 
even now. As he scribbles on he is beginning to get the 
habit of noticing metrical quantities, to see that any two- 
syllable word in isolation must be either a ti-tum, a tum-ti or, 
occasionally, a tum-tum, but that when associated with other 
words it can sometimes become a ti-ti; when he discovers a 
rhyme he has not thought of before, he stores it away in his 
memory, a habit which an Italian poet may not need to acquire 
but which an English poet will find useful. 

And, though as yet he can only scribble, he has started 
reading real poems for pleasure and on purpose. Many things 
can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to 
whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a 
good one can be an invaluable instructor. I had the extraor- 
dinary good fortune to be presented one Christmas with the 
De la Mare anthology Come Hither. This had, for my pur- 
poses, two great virtues. Firstly, its good taste. Reading it 
today, I find very few poems which I should have omitted 
and none which I should think it bad taste to admire. Sec- 
ondly, its catholic taste. Given the youthful audience for 
which it was designed, there were certain kinds of poetry 
which it did not represent, but within those limits the variety 
was extraordinary. Particularly valuable was its lack of literary 
class consciousness, its juxtaposition on terms of equality of 
unofficial poetry, such as counting-out rhymes, and official 
poetry such as the odes of Keats. It taught me at the start 
that poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, 
and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which 
one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy 
and a great desire to read 

When other ladies to the shades go down. 

Still Flavia, Chloris, Celia stay in town. 

These Ghosts of Beauty ling’ring there abide. 

And haunt the places where their Honour died. 

Making, Knovnng and Judging 

[ 37 

Matthew Arnold’s notion of Touchstones by which to measure 
all poems has always struck me as a doubtful one, likely 
to turn readers into snobs and to ruin talented poets by t^pt- 
ing them to imitate what is beyond their powers. 

A poet who wishes to improve himself should certainly keep 
good company, but for his profit as well as for his comfort 
the company should not be too far above his station. It is by 
no means clear that the poetry which influenced Shakespeare’s 
development most fruitfully was the greatest poetry with 
which he was acquainted. Even for readers, when one diinks 
of the attention that a great poem demands, there is some- 
thing frivolous about the notion of spending every day with 
one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the 

I am not trying to defend the aesthetic heresy that one 
subject is no more important than any other, or that a poem 
has no subject or that there is no difference between a great 
poem and a good one — a heresy which seems to me contrary 
to human feeling and common sense — but I can understand 
why it exists. Nothing is worse than a bad poem which 
was intended to be great. 

So a would-be poet begins to learn that poetry is more 
various than he imagined and that he can like and dislike 
different poems for different reasons. His Censor, however, 
has still not yet been born. Before he can give birth to him, 
he has to pretend to be somebody else; he has to get a literary 
transference upon some poet in particular. 

If poetry were in great public demand so that there were 
overworked professional poets, I can imagine a system under 
which an established poet would take on a small number 
of apprentices who would begin by changing his blotting 
paper, advance to typing his manuscripts and end up by 
ghostwriting poems for him which he was too busy to start 
or finish. The apprentices might really learn something for, 
knowing that he would get the blame as well as the credit 
for their work, the Master would be extremely choosy about 
his apprentices and do his best to teach them all he knew. 

In fact, of course, a would-be poet serves his apprentice- 
ship in a library. This has its advantages. Though the Master 

38 ] 

The Dyer's Hand 

is deaf and dumb and gives neither instruction nor criticism, 
the apprentice can choose any Master he likes, living or dead, 
the Master is available at any hour of the day or night, 
lessons are all for free, and his passionate admiration of 
his Master will ensure that he work hard to please him. 

To please means to imitate and it is impossible to do a 
recognizable imitation of a poet without attending to every 
detail of his diction, rhythms and habits of sensibility. In 
imitating his Master, the apprentice acquires a Censor, for 
he learns that, no matter how he finds it, by inspiration, by 
potluck or after hours of laborious search, there is only one 
word or rhythm or form that is the right one. The right one is 
still not yet the real one, for the apprentice is ventriloquizing, 
but he nas got away from poetry-in-general; he is learning 
how a poem is written. Later in life, incidentally, he will 
realize how important is the art of imitation, for he will 
not infrequently be called upon to imitate himself. 

My first Master was Thomas Hardy, and I think I was very 
lucky in my choice. He was a good poet, perhaps a great 
one, but not too good. Much as I loved him, even I could see 
that his diction was often clumsy and forced and that a lot 
of his poems were plain bad. This gave me hope where 
a flawless poet might have made me despair. He was modern 
without being too modern. His world and sensibility were 
close enough to mine — curiously enough his face bore a strik- 
ing resemblance to my father’s — so that, in imitating him, 
I was being led towards not away from myself, but they 
were not so close as to obliterate my identity. If I looked 
through his spectacles, at least I was conscious of a certain 
eyestrain. Lasdy, his metrical variety, his fondness for com- 
plicated stanza forms, were an invaluable training in the craft 
of making. I am also thankful that my first Master did not 
write in free verse or I might then have been tempted to 
believe that free verse is easier to write than stricter forms, 
whereas I now know it is infinitely more difficult. 

Presently the curtain rises on a scene rather like the finale 
to Act II of Die Meister singer. Let us call it The Gathering 
of the Apprentices. The apprentices gather together from all 

Making, Knovnng and Judging [ 39 

over and discover that they are a new generation^ somebody 
shouts the word “modem” and the riot is on. The New 
Iconoclastic Poets and Critics are discovered — when I was 
an undergraduate a critic could still describe Mr. T. S. ^liot, 
O.M., as “a drunken helot” — the poetry which these new 
authorities recommend becomes the Canon, that on which 
they frown is thrown out of the window. There are gods 
whom it is blasphemy to criticize and devils whose names 
may not be mentioned without execrations. The apprentices 
have seen a great light while their tutors sit in darkness and 
the shadow of death. 

Really, how do the dons stand it, for I'm sure this scene 
repeats itself year after year. When I recall the kindness of 
my tutors, the patience with which they listened, the courtesy 
with which they hid their boredom, I am overwhelmed by 
their sheer goodness. I suppose that, having arrived there, 
they knew that the road of excess can lead to the palace 
of Wisdom, though it frequently does not. 

An apprentice discovers that there is a significant relation 
between the statement “Today I am nineteen” and the state- 
ment “Today is February the twenty-first, 1926.” If the dis- 
covery goes to his head, it is, nevertheless, a discovery he 
must make, for, until he realizes that all the poems he has 
read, however different they may be, have one common 
characteristic — they have all been written — ^his own writing 
will never cease to be imitative. He will never know what 
he himself can write until he has a general sense of what 
needs to he written. And this is the one thing his elders 
cannot teach him, just because they are his elders; he can 
only learn it from his fellow apprentices with whom he shares 
one thing in common, youth. 

The discovery is not wholly pleasant. If the youpg speak 
of the past as a burden it is a joy to throw off, behind their 
words may often lie a resentment and fright at realizing 
that the past will not carry them on its back. 

The critical statements of the Censor are always polemical 
advice to his poet, meant, not as objective truths, but as 
pointers, and in youth which is trying to discover its own 

40 J The Dyer’s Hand 

identity, the exasperation at not having yet succeeded natur- 
ally tends to express itself in violence and exaggeration. 

If an undergraduate announces to his tutor one morning 
that Gertrude Stein is the greatest writer who ever lived or that 
Shakespeare is no good, he is really only saying something 
like this: “I don't know what to write yet or how, but yester- 
day while reading Gertrude Stein, I thought I saw a clue” or 
"Reading Shakespeare yesterday, I realized that one of the 
faults in what I unite is a tendency to rhetorical bombast.” 

Fashion and snobbery are also vduable as a defense against 
literary indigestion. Regardless of their quality, it is dways 
better to read a few books carefully than skim through many, 
and, short of a personal taste which cannot be formed over- 
night, snobbery is as good a principle of limitation as any 

I am eternally grateful, for example, to the musical fashion 
of my youth which prevented me from listening to Italian 
Opera until I was over thirty, by which age I 
of really appreciating a world so beautiful and so 
to my own cultural heritage. 

The apprentices do each other a further mutual service 
which no older and sounder critic could do. They read 
each other’s manuscripts. At this age a fellow apprentice has 
two great virtues as a critic. When he reads your poem, he 
may grossly overestimate it, but if he does, he redly believes 
what he is saying; he never flatters or praises merely to en- 
courage. Secondly, he reads your poem with that passionate 
attention which grown-up critics only give to masterpieces 
and grown-up poets only to themselves. When he finds fault, 
his criticisms are intended to help you to improve. He really 
wants your poem to be better. 

It is just this kind of persond criticism which in later 
life, when the band of apprentices has dispersed, a writer 
often finds it so hard to get. The verdicts of reviewers, however 
just, are seldom of any use to him. Why should they be? A 
critic’s duty is to tell the public what a work is, not tell 
its author what he should and could have written instead. 
Yet this is the only kind of criticism from which an author 

was capaoie 

Making, Knowing and Judging [41 

can benefit. TTiose who could do it for him are generally, like 
himself, too elsewhere, too busy, too married, too selfish. 

We must assume that our apprentice does succeed in be- 
coming a poet, that, sooner or later, a day arrives when his 
Censor is able to say truthfully and for the first time: “All 
the words are right, and all are yours.” 

His thrill at hearing this does not last long, however, for 
a moment later comes the thought: “Will it ever happen 
again?” Whatever his future life as a wage-earner, a citizen, 
a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a 
poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to 
say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my train- 
ing and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.” 
In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one 
good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment 
when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The mo- 
ment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment 
after, he is a man who has ceased to write proetry, perhaps 


It is hardly surprising, then, if a young poet seldom does 
well in his examinations. If he does, then, either he is also 
a scholar in the making, or he is a very good boy indeed. A 
medical student knows that he must study anatomy in order 
to become a doctor, so he has a reason for study. A future 
scholar has a reason, because he knows more or less what 
he wants to know. But there is nothing a would-be poet knows 
he has to know. He is at the mercy of the immediate moment 
because he has no concrete reason for not yielding to its de- 
mands and, for all he knows now, surrendering to his im- 
mediate desire may turn out later to have been the best thing 
he could have done. His immediate desire can even be to 
attend a lecture. I remember one I attended, delivered by 
Professor Tolkien. I do not remember a single word he said 
but at a certain point he recited, and magnificently, a long 
passage of Beowulf. I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, 

The Dyer's Hand 

42 ] 

was going to be my dish. I became willing, therefore, to work 
at Anglo-Saxon because, unless I did, I should never be able 
to read this poetry. I learned enough to read it, however 
sloppily, and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have 
been one of my strongest, most lasting influences. 

But this was something which neither I nor anybody 
else could have foreseen. Again, what good angel lured 
me into Blackwell’s one afternoon and, from such a wilder- 
ness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of W. P. Ker? No 
other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted 
me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in 
which the dead, the living and the unborn writers of every 
age and in every tongue were seen as engaged upon a common, 
noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantane- 
ously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have 
never lost. 

You must not imagine, however, that being a bad boy is all 
fun. During my three years as an undergraduate, I had a high 
old time, I made some lifelong friends and I was more un- 
happy than I have ever been before or since. I might or might 
not be wasting my time — only the future would show — I was 
certainly wasting my parents’ money. Nor must you think 
that, because he fails to study, a young poet looks down his 
nose at all the scholarly investigations going on around him. 
Unless he is very young indeed, he knows that these lines by 
Yeats are rather silly. 

Bald heads forgetful of their sins. 

Old, learned, respectable bald heads 

Edit and annotate the lines 

That young men, tossing on their beds. 

Rhymed out in their despair 
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear. 

All shuffle there; all cough in ink; 

All wear the carpet with their shoes; 

All think what other people think; 

All know the man their neighbour knows. 

Making, Knowing and Judging 


Lord, what would they say 
Did their Catullus walk that way? 

Ignoring the obvious libel — that all dons are bald and respect- 
able — the sentiments are still nonsense. Edit indeed; Thank 
God they do. If it had not been for scholars working them- 
selves blind copying and collating manuscripts, how many 
poems would be unavailable, including those of Catullus, and 
how many others full of lines that made no sense? Nor has 
the invention of printing made editors unnecessary. Lucky the 
poet whose collected works are not full of misprints. Even a 
young poet knows or very soon will realize that, but for 
scholars, he would be at the mercy of the literary taste of a 
past generation, since, once a book has gone out of print and 
been forgotten, only the scholar with his unselfish courage to 
read the unreadable will retrieve the rare prize. How much 
Donne, even, would he have read, had it not been for Pro- 
fessor Grierson? What would he know of Clare or Barnes or 
Christopher Smart but for Messrs. Blunden, Grigson, Force- 
stead and Bond? Nor is editing all that scholars have already 
done for him. There is that blessed combination of poet and 
scholar, the translator. How, for example, without the learning 
and talent of Sir Arthur Waley, could he have discovered, 
and without the slightest effort on his part, an entirely new 
world of poetry, that of the Chinese? 

No, what prevents the young poet from academic study is 
not conceited ingratitude but a Law of mental growth. Except 
in matters of life and death, temporal or spiritual, questions 
must not be answered until they have been asked, and at 
present he has no questions. At present he makes little distinc- 
tion between a book, a country walk and a kiss. All are equally 
experiences to store away in his memory. Could he look into a 
memory, the literary historian would find many members of 
that species which he calls books, but they are curiously 
changed from the books he finds in his library. The dates are 
all different. In Memoriam is written before The Dunciad, 
the thirteenth century comes after the sixteenth. He always 
thought Robert Burton wrote a big book about melancholy. 

44 ] "Tfec Dyer’s Hand 

Apparently he only wrote ten pages. He is accustomed to the 
notion that a book can only be written once. Here some are 
continually rewritten. In his library books are related to each 
other in an orderly way by genre or subject. Here the com- 
monest principle of association seems to be by age groups. 
Piers Ploughman III is going about with Kierkegaard’s Jour- 
nals, Piers Ploughman IV with The Making of the English 
Landscape. Most puzzling of all, instead of only associating 
with members of their own kind, in this extraordinary democ- 
racy every species of being knows every other and the closest 
friend of a book is rarely another book. GuUiver’s Travels 
walks arm in arm with a love affair, a canto of ll Paradiso sits 
with a singularly good dinner. War and Peace never leaves 
the side of a penniless Christmas in a foreign city, the tenth 
The Winters Tale exchanges greetings with the first complete 
recording of La Favorita. 

Yet this is the world out of which poems are made. In a 
better and more sensible poem than “The Scholars” Yeats 
describes it as a “rag and bone shop.” Let me use the less drab 
but no less anarchic image of a Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party. 

In so reading to stock his memory with images upon which 
later he may be able to draw in his own work, there is no 
critical principle by which a poet can select his books. The 
critical judgment “This book is good or bad” implies good or 
bad at all times, but in relation to a reader’s future a book is 
good now if its future effect is good, and, since the future is 
unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide, there- 
fore, is the naive uncritical principle of personal liking. A per- 
son at least knows one thing about his future, that however 
different it may be from his present, it will be his. However 
he may have changed he will still be himself, not somebody 
else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal 
judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of be- 
coming useful to him later. 

A poet is all the more willing to be guided by personal liking 
because he assumes, I think with reason, that, since he wants 
to write poetry himself, his taste may be limited but it will 
not be so bad as to lead him astray. The chances are that most 

Meting, Knowing and Jtidging [ 45 

of the books he likes are such as a critic would approve of. 
Should it come to a quarrel between liking and approving, 
however, I think he will always take the side of liking, and, he 
enjoys baiting the critic with teasers like the problem of the 
comically bad poem. 

Go, Mary, to the summer house 
And sweep the wooden floor. 

And light the little fire, and wash 
The pretty varnished door; 

For there the London gentleman. 

Who lately lectured here. 

Will smoke a pipe with Jonathan, 

And taste our home-brewed beer. 

Go bind the dahlias, that our guest 
May praise their fading dyes; 

But strip of every fading bloom 
The flower that won the prize! 

And take thy father's knife, and prune 
The roses that remain. 

And let the fallen hollyhock 
Peep through the broken pane. 

I’ll follow in an hour or two; 

Be sure I will not fail 

To bring his flute and spying glass, 

The pipes and bottled ale; 

And that grand music that he made 
About the child in bliss, 

Our guest shall hear it sung and played. 

And feel how grand it is!’^ 

Had this poem appeared last week under the title “Mr. Ebe- 
nezer Elliott Entertains a Metropolitan Visitor” and been 

* Ebenezer Elliott, quoted by Aldous Huxley in Texts and Pretexts, 

The Dyer’s Hand 

46 ] 

signed by Mr. John Betjeman, would it be good? Since it was 
not written by Mr. Betjeman as a comic dramatic monologue 
but by Mr. Elliott himself as a serious lyric, is it bad? What 
difference do the inverted commas make? 

In judging a work of the past, the question of the historical 
critic — "What was the author of this work trying to do? How 
far did he succeed in doing it?” — important as he knows it to 
be, will always interest a poet less than the question — “What 
does this work suggest to living writers now? Will it help or 
hinder them in what they are trying to do?” 

A few years ago I came across the following lines: 

Wherewith Love to the harts forest he fleeth 
Leaving the enterprise with pain and cry, 

And there him hideth and not appeareth. 

What may I do? When my master feareth, 

But in the field with him to live and die, 

For good is the life ending faithfully. 

I found the rhythm of these lines strangely beautiful, they 
haunted me and I know that they have had an influence upon 
the rhythm of certain lines of my own. 

Of course I know that all the historical evidence suggests 
that Wyatt was trying to write regular iambics, that the 
rhythm he was after would have his lines run thus: 

/ / / II 

And there him hideth and not appeareth 

What may I do? When my master feareth 

But in the field with him to live and die 
/ II II 

For good is the life ending faithfully. 

Since they cannot be read this way without sounding mon- 
strous, one must say that Wyatt failed to do what he was try- 
ing to do, and a literary historian of the sixteenth century w'ill 
have to censure him. 

Luckily I am spared this duty and can without reservation 
approve. Between Wyatt and the present day lie four hundred 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 47 

years of prosodic practice and development. Thanks to 
the work of our predecessors any schoolboy can today write the 
regular iambics which Wyatt, struggling to escape from the 
metrical anarchy of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, 
found so difficult. Our problem in the twentieth century is not 
how to write iambics but how not to write in them from 
automatic habit when they are not to our genuine purpose. 
What for Wyatt was a failure is for us a blessing. Must a work 
be censored for being beautiful by accident? I suppose it must, 
but a poet will always have a sneaking regard for luck because 
he knows the role which it plays in poetic composition. Some- 
thing unexpected is always turning up, and though he knows 
that the Censor has to pass it, the memory of the lucky dip is 
what he treasures. 

A young poet may be conceited about his good taste, but he 
is under no illusions about his ignorance. He is well aware of 
how much poetry there is that he would like but of which he 
has never heard, and that there are learned men who have 
read it. His problem is knowing which learned man to ask, 
for it is not just more good poetry that he wants to read, but 
more of the kind he likes. He judges a scholarly or critical book 
less by the text than by the quotations, and all his life, I think, 
when he reads a work of criticism, he will find himself trying 
to guess what taste lies behind the critic’s judgment. Like 
Matthew Arnold I have my Touchstones, but they are for 
testing critics, not poets. Many of them concern taste in other 
matters than poetry or even literature, but here are four ques- 
tions which, could I examine a critic, I should ask him : 

“Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of 
on principle: 

1 ) Long lists of proper names such as the Old Testament 
genealogies or the Catalogue of ships in the Iliad} 

2) Riddles and all other ways of not calling a spade a 

3) Complicated verse forms of great technical difficulty, 
such as Englyns, Drott-Kvaetts, Sestinas, even if their 
content is trivial? 

48 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

4) Conscious theatrical exaggeration, pieces of Baroque 
flattery like Dryden’s welcome to the Duchess of Or- 

If a critic could truthfully answer “yes” to all four, then I 
should trust his judgment implicitly on all literary matters. 


It is not uncommon, it is even usual, for a poet to write re- 
views, compile anthologies, compose critical introductions. It 
is one of his main sources of income. He may even find him- 
self lecturing. In such chores he has little to offset his lack of 
scholarship, but that little he has. 

His lazy habit of only reading what he likes will at least 
have taught him one lesson, that to be worth attacking a book 
must be worth reading. The greatest critical study of a single 
figure that I know of. The Case of Wagner, is a model of what 
such an attack should be. Savage as he often is, Nietzsche 
never allows the reader to forget for one instant that Wagner 
is an extraordinary genius and that, for all which may be 
wrong with it, his music is of the highest importance. Indeed 
it was this book which first taught me to listen to Wagner, 
about whom I had previously held silly preconceived notions. 
Another model is D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic Ameri- 
can Literature. I remember my disappointment, when, after 
reading the essay on Fenimore Clooper which is highly critical, 
I hurried off to read him. Unfortunately, I did not find Cooper 
nearly as exciting as Lawrence had maae him sound. 

The second advantage which a poet possesses is that such 
satisfactions to the ego as the writing of poetry can provide 
have been taken care of in his case. I should not expect a poet 
turned critic to become either a prig, a critic’s critic, a roman- 
tic novelist or a maniac. By the prig, I mean the critic for 
whom no actual poem is good enough since the only one that 
would be is the poem he would like to write himself but can- 
not. Reading his criticism, one gets the impression that he 
would rather a poem were bad than good. His twin, the critic’s 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 49 

critic, shows no obvious resentment; indeed, on the surface he 
appears to idolize the poet about whom he is writing; but his 
critical analysis of his idol’s work is so much more complicated 
and difficult than the work itself as to deprive someone who 
has not yet read it of all wish to do so. He, too, one suspects, 
has a secret grievance. He finds it unfortunate and regrettable 
that before there can be criticism there has to be a poem to 
criticize. For him a poem is not a work of art by somebody 
else; it is his own discovered document. 

The romantic novelist is a much jollier figure. His happy 
hunting ground is the field of unanswerable questions, par- 
ticularly if they concern the private lives of authors. Since the 
questions to which he devotes his life — he is often an ex- 
tremely learned gentleman — can never be answered, he is free 
to indulge his fancies without misgivings. And why shouldn’t 
he? How much duller the Variorum edition of the Shakespeare 
sonnets would be without him. Jolliest of all is the maniac. 
The commonest of his kind is the man who believes that poetry 
is written in cyphers — but there are many other kinds. My 
favorite is the John Bellendon Ker who set out to prove that 
English nursery rhymes were originally written in a form of 
Old Dutch invented by himself. 

Whatever his defects, a poet at least thinks a poem more 
important than anything which can be said about it, he would 
rather it were good than bad, the last thing he wants is that 
it should be like one of his own, and his experience as a maker 
should have taught him to recognize quickly whether a critical 
question is important, unimportant but real, unreal because 
unanswerable or just absurd. 

He will know, for example, that knowledge of an artist’s 
life, temperament and opinions is unimportant to an under- 
standing of his art, but that a similar knowledge about a critic 
may be important to an understanding of his judgments. If 
we knew every detail of Shakespeare’s life, our reading of his 
plays would be litde changed, if at all; but how much less 
interesting The Lives of the Poets would be if we knew noth- 
ing else about Johnson. 

He will know, to take an instance of an unanswerable ques- 

5° ] Dyer's Hand 

tion, that if the date of the Shakespeare sonnets can ever be 
fixed, it will not be fixed by poring over Sonnet CVII. His 
experience as a maker of poems will make him reason some- 
thing like this: “The feeling expressed here is the not un- 
common feeling — All’s well -with my love and all’s well with 
the world at large. The feeling that all is well with the world 
at large can be produced in many ways. It can be produced by 
an occasion of public rejoicing, some historical event like the 
defeat of the Armada or the successful passing of the Queen’s 
climacteric, but it does not have to be. The same feeling can 
be aroused by a fine day. The figures employed in the lines 

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured 
And the sad augurs mock their own presage. 
Incertainties now crown themselves assured 
And peace proclaims olives of endless age 

come from literature and contain no specific historical refer- 
ence. They could have been suggested to Shakespeare by some 
historical event, but he could have written them without one. 
Further, even if they were so prompted, the date of the event 
does not have to be contemporary with the occasion celebrated 
in the sonnet. A present instance of a feeling always recalls 
past instances and their circumstances, so that it is possible, if 
the poet chooses, to employ images suggested by the circum- 
stances of a past occasion to describe the present if the feeling 
is the same. What Shakespeare has written contains no his- 
torical clue.’’ 

Because of his limited knowledge, a poet would generally 
be wise, when talking about poetry, to choose either some 
general subject upon which if his conclusions are true in a 
few cases, they must be true in most, or some detailed matter 
which only requires the intensive study of a few works. He 
may have something sensible to say about woods, even about 
leaves, but you should never trust him on trees. 

Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most 
when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is 
a verbal contraption. How does it work?’’ The second is, in the 

Making, Knovnng and Judging [51 

broadest sense, moral: "What kind of a guy inhabits this 
poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? 
His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the 
reader? What does he conceal even from himself?” 

And you must not be surprised if he should have nothing 
but platitudes to say; firsdy because he will always find it hard 
to believe that a poem needs expounding, and secondly be- 
cause he doesn’t consider poetry quite that important: any 
poet, I believe, will echo Miss Marianne Moore’s words: “I, 
too, dislike it." 


Away back we left a young poet who had just written his 
first real poem and was wondering if it would be his last. We 
must assume that it was not. that he has arrived on the literary 
scene in the sense that now people pass judgment on his work 
without having read it. Twenty years have gone by. The 
table of his Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party has gotten much longer 
and there are thousands of new faces, some charming, some 
quite horrid. Down at the far end, some of those who used to 
be so amusing have turned into crashing bores or fallen asleep, 
a sad change which has often come over later guests after hold- 
ing forth for a few years. Boredom does not necessarily imply 
disapproval; I still think Rilke a great poet though I cannot 
read him any more. 

Many of the books which have been most important to him 
have not been works of poetry or criticism but books which 
have altered his way of looking at the world and himself, and a 
lot of these, probably, are what an expert in their field would 
call "unsound.” The expert, no doubt, is right, but it is not for 
a poet to judge; his duty is to be grateful. 

And among the experiences which have influenced his 
writing, a number may have been experiences of other arts. I 
know, for example, that through listening to music I have 
learned much about how to organize a poem, how to obtain 
variety and contrast through change of tone, tempo and 
rhythm, though I could not say just how. Man is an analogy- 

The Dyer’s Hand 

52 ) 

drawing animal; that is his great good fortune. His danger is 
of treating analogies as identities, of saying, for instance, 
“Poetry should be as much like music as possible.” I suspect 
that the people who are most likely to say this are the tone- 
deaf. The more one loves another art, the less likely it is that 
one will wish to trespass upon its domain. 

During these twenty years, one thing has never changed 
since he wrote his first poem. Every time he writes a new one, 
the same question occurs to him: “Will it ever happen again,” 
but now he begins to hear his Censor saying: “It must never 
happen again.” Having spent twenty years learning to be him- 
self, he finds that he must now start learning not to be himself. 
At first he may think this means no more than keeping a 
sharper look out for obsessive rhythms, tics of expression, 
privately numinous words, but presently he discovers that the 
command not to imitate himself can mean something harder 
than that. It can mean that he should refrain from writing a 
poem which might turn out to be a good one, and even an 
admired one. He learns that, if on finishing a poem he is con- 
vinced that it is good, the chances are that the poem is a self- 
imitation. The most hopeful sign that it is not is the feeling 
of complete uncertainty: “Either this is quite good or it is quite 
bad, I can’t tell.” And, of course, it may very well be quite 
bad. Discovering oneself is a passive process because the self 
is already there. Time and attention are all that it takes. But 
changing oneself means changing in one direction rather than 
another, and towards one goal rather than another. The goal 
may be unknown but movement is impossible without a 
hypothesis as to where it lies. It is at this poirit, therefore, that 
a poet often begins to take an interest in theories of poetry 
and even to develop one of his own. 

I am always interested in hearing what a poet has to say 
about the nature of poetry, though I do not take it too seri- 
ously. As objective statements his definitions are never ac- 
curate, never complete and always one-sided. Not one would 
stand up under a rigorous analysis. In unkind moments one is 
almost tempted to think that all they are really saying is: “Read 
me. Don’t read the other fellows.” But, taken as critical ad- 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 53 

monitions addressed by his Censor to the poet hinjself, there 
is generally something to be learned from them. 

Baudelaire has given us an excellent account of their origin 
and purpose. 

I pity the poets who are guided solely by instinct; they 
seem to me incomplete. In the spiritual life of the former 
there must come a crisis when they would think out their 
art, discover the obscure laws in consequence of which 
they have produced, and draw from this study a series of 
precepts whose divine purpose is infallibility in poetic 

The evidence, that is to say, upon which the poet bases his 
conclusions consists of his own experiences in writing and his 
private judgments upon his own works. Looking back, he sees 
many occasions on which he took a wrong turning or walked 
up a blind alley, mistakes which, it seems to him now, he 
could have avoided, had he been more conscious at the time 
of the choice he was making. Looking over the poems he has 
written, he finds that, irrespective or their merits, there are 
some which he particularly dislikes and some which are his 
favorites. Of one he may think: "This is full of faults, but it 
is the kind of poem I ought to write more of”; of another: 
“This may be all right in itself but it’s exactly the sort of thing 
I must never do again.” The principles he formulates, there- 
fore, are intended to guard himself against making unnecessary 
mistakes and provide him with a guesswork map of the future. 
They are fallible, of course — like all guesses — the word in- 
fallibility in Baudelaire’s description is typical poet’s fib. But 
there is a difference between a project which may fail and 
one which must. 

In trying to formulate principles, a poet may have another 
motive which Baudelaire does not mention, a desire to justify 
his writing poetry at all, and in recent years this motive seems 
to have grown stronger. The Rimbaud Myth — the tale of a 
great poet who ceases writing, not because, like Coleridge, 
he has nothing more to say, but because he chooses to stop 

54 ] 'The Dyer's Hand 

— may not be true, I am pretty sure it is not, but as a myth 
it haunts the artistic conscience of this century. 

Knowing all this, and knowing that you know it, I shall 
now proceed to make some general statements of my own. 
I hope they are not nonsense, but I cannot be sure. At least, 
even as emotive noises, I find them useful to me. The only 
verifiable facts I can offer in evidence are these. 

Some cultures make a social distinction between the sacred 
and the profane, certain human beings are publicly regarded 
as numinous, and a clear division is made between certain 
actions which are regarded as sacred rites of great importance 
to the well-being of society, and everyday profane behavior. 
In such cultures, if they are advanced enough to recognize 
poetry as an art, the poet has a public — even a professional 
status — and his poetry is either public or esoteric. 

There are other cultures, like our own, in which the dis- 
tinction between the sacred and the profane is not socially 
recognized. Either the distinction is denied or it is regarded 
as an individual matter of taste with which society is not and 
should not be concerned. In such cultures, the poet has an 
amateur status and his poetry is neither public nor esoteric 
but intimate. That is to say, he writes neither as a citizen 
nor as a member of a group of professional adepts, but as 
a single person to be read by other single persons. Intimate 
poetry is not necessarily obscure; for someone not in the know, 
ancient esoteric poetry can be more obscure than the wildest 
modern. Nor, needless to say, is intimate poetry necessarily 
inferior to other kinds. 

In what follows, the terms Primary and Secondary Imagina- 
tion are taken, of course, from the thirteenth chapter of 
Biogru'phia Literaria. I have adopted them because, though 
my description may differ from Coleridge’s, I believe we are 
both trying to describe the same phenomena. 

Herewith, then, what I might describe as a literary dog- 
matic psalm, a kind of private Quicunque vult. 

The concern of the Primary Imagination, its only concern, 
is with sacred beings and sacred events. The sacred is that 
to which it is obliged to respond; the profane is that to which 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 55 

it cannot respond and therefore does not know. The profane 
is known to other faculties of the mind, but not to the Primary 
Imagination. A sacred being cannot be anticipated; it must 
be encountered. On encounter the imagination has no option 
but to respond. All imaginations do not recognize the same 
sacred beings or events, but every im^ination responds to 
those it recognizes in the same way. Tne impression made 
upon the imagination by any sacred being is of an over- 
whelming but undehnable importance — an unchangeable 
quality, an Identity, as Keats said: I-am-that-I-am is what every 
sacred being seems to say. The impression made by a sacred 
event is of an overwhelming but undehnable signihcance. 
In his book Witchcraft, Mr. Charles Williams has described 
it thus: 

One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, 
is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a ciga- 
rette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping 
from the train is the rock of all existence. ... Two light 
dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the School- 
men were trying to express . . . but two quiet steps by 
an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the 
other way round. 

The response of the imagination to such a presence or 
significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly 
in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic 
dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repulsive — a swan 
or an octopus — ^beautiful or ugly — a toothless hag or a fair 
young child — good or evil — a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans 
Merci — ^historical fact or fiction — a person met on the road 
or an image encountered in a story or a dream — it may be 
noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it 
may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is 
absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary 
Imagination is without freedom, sense of time or humor. 
Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies 
below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art. 
Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations 

The Dyer’s Hand 

56 ] 

at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes and those 
four important beings which can only be defined in terms 
of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death. Some, like 
kings, are only sacred to all within a certain culture; some 
only to members of a social group— the Latin language among 
humanists — and some are only sacred to a single imagination. 
Many of us have sacred landscapes which probably all have 
much in common, but there will almost certainly be details 
which are peculiar to each. An imagination can acquire new 
sacred beings and it can lose old ones to the profane. Sacred 
beings can be acquired by social contagion but not consciously. 
One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has 
to be converted. As a rule, perhaps, with advancing age sacred 
events gain in importance over sacred beings. 

A sacred being may also be an object of desire but the 
imagination does not desire it. A desire can be a sacred being 
but the imagination is without desire. In the presence of the 
sacred, it is self-forgetful; in its absence the very type of 
the profane, “The most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.” 
A sacred being may also demand to be loved or obeyed, it 
may reward or punish, but the imagination is unconcerned: 
a law can be a sacred being, but the imagination does not 
obey. To the imagination a sacred being is self-sufficient, and 
like Aristotle’s God can have no need of friends. 

The Secondary Imagination is of another character and 
at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its cate- 
gories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful 
and ugly. Our dreams are full of sacred beings and events 
— indeed, they may well contain nothing else, but we cannot 
distinguish in dreams — or so it seems to me, though I may 
be wrong — between the beautiful and the ugly. Beauty 
and ugliness pertain to Form not to Being. The Primary 
Imagination only recognizes one kind of being, the sacred, 
but the Secondary Imagination recognizes both beautiful and 
ugly forms. To the Primary Imagination a sacred being is 
that which it is. To the Secondary Imagination a beautiful 
form is as it ought to be, an ugly form as it ought not to 
be. Observing the beautiful, it has the feeling of satisfaction. 

McMng, Knowing and Judging 

[ 57 

pleasure, absence of conflict; observing die ugly, the contrary 
feelings. It does not desire the beautiful, but an ugly form 
arouses in it a desire that its ugliness be corrected and made 
beautiful. It does not worship the beautiful; it approves of 
it and can give reasons for its approval. The Secondary Imag- 
ination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves 
of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, 
of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance 
and mess. 

Lastly, the Secondary Imagination is social and craves 
agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and 
you think it ugly, we cannot both help agreeing that one 
of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred 
and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing 
the matter. 

Both kinds of imagination are essential to the health of the 
mind. Without the inspiration of sacred awe, its beautiful 
forms would soon become banal, its rhythms mechanical; 
without the activity of the Secondary Imagination the passivity 
of the Primary would be the mind’s undoing; sooner or later 
its sacred beings would possess it, it would come to think 
of itself as sacred, exclude the outer world as profane and 
so go mad. 

1 he impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain 
persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events 
is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of 
worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be 
beautiful. This rite has no magical or idolatrous intention; 
nothing is expected in return. Nor is it, in a Christian sense, 
an act of devotion. If it praises the Creator, it does so indirectly 
by praising His creatures — among which may be human no- 
tions of the Divine Nature. With God as Redeemer, it has, so 
far as I can see, little if anything to do. 

In poetry the rite is verbal; it pays homage by naming. I 
suspect that the predisposition of a mind towards the poetic 
medium may have its origin in an error. A nurse, let us sup- 
pose, says to a child, “Look at the moon!” The child looks and 
for him this is a sacred encounter. In his mind the word 

58 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

“moon” is not a name of a sacred object but one of its most 
important properties and, therefore, numinous. The notion of 
writing poetry cannot occur to him, of course, until he has 
realized that names and things are not identical and that there 
cannot be an intelligible sacred language, hut I wonder if, 
when he has discovered the social nature of language, he 
would attach such importance to one of its uses, that of naming, 
if he had not previously made this false identihcation. 

The pure poem, in the French sense of la poSsie pure would 
be, I suppose, a celebration of the numinous-in-itself in abstrac- 
tion from all cases and devoid of any profane reference what- 
soever — a sort of sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. If it could be 
written, which is doubtful, it would not necessarily be the best 

A poem is a rite; hence its formal and ritualistic character. 
Its use of language is deliberately and ostentatiously different 
from talk. Even when it employs the diction and rhythms of 
conversation, it employs them as a deliberate informality, pre- 
supposing the norm with which they are intended to contrast. 

The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for exam- 
ple, balance, closure and aptness to that which it is the form 
of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our 
aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred 
and profane worlds differ. 

To the Eyes of a Miser, a Guinea is far more beauti- 
ful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money 
has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with 

Blake, it will be noticed, does not accuse the Miser of lacking 

The value of a profane thing lies in what it usefully does, 
the value of a sacred thing lies in what it is: a sacred thing 
may also have a function but it does not have to. The apt 
name for a profane being, therefore, is the word or words 
that accurately describe his function — a Mr. Smith, a Mr. 
Weaver. The apt name for a sacred being is the word or words 
which worthily express his importance — Son of Thunder, The 
Well-Wishing One. 

Making, Knowing and Judging [ 59 

Great changes in artistic style always reflect some, alteration 
in the frontier between the sacred and profane in the imag- 
ination of a society. Thus, to take an architectural example, a 
seventeenth-century monarch had the same function as that 
of a modern State official — he had to govern. But in designing 
his palace, the Baroque architect did not aim, as a modem 
architect aims when designing a government building, at 
making an office in which the king could govern as easily and 
efficiently as possible; he was trying to make a home fit for 
God’s earthly representative to inhabit; in so far as he thought 
at all about what the king would do in it as a mler, he thought 
of his ceremonial not his practical actions. 

Even today few people find a functionally furnished living 
room beautiful because, to most of us, a sitting room is not 
merely a place to sit in; it is also a shrine for father’s chair. 

Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate 
any one sacred being or event to any other. The relation may 
be harmonious, an ironic contrast or a tragic contradiction like 
the great man, or the beloved, and death; he can relate them 
to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, 
reason and conscience, and he can bring them into contact 
and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can 
be happy, ironic, tragic and, in relation to the profane, comic. 
How many poems have been written, for example, upon one of 
these three themes: 

This was sacred but now it is profane. Alas, or thank 

This is sacred but ought it to be? 

This is sacred but is that so important? 

But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a 
poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to the language, 
he need not name them directly unless he wishes; he can 
describe one in terms of another and translate those that 
are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as 
are acceptable to reason and society. Some poems are directly 
about the sacred beings they were written for: others are not, 
and in that case no reader can tell what was the original en- 
counter which provided the impulse for the poem. Nor, prob- 

The Dyer’s Hand 

ably, can the poet himself. Every poem he writes involves 
his whole past. Every love poem, for instance, is hung with 
trophies of lovers gone, and among these may be some very 
peculiar objects indeed. The lovely lady of the present may 
number among her predecessors an overshot waterwheel. But 
the encounter, be it novel or renewed by recollection from 
the past, must be sufiFered by a poet before he can write a 
genuine poem. 

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem 
is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and 
one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct — ^it may 
express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every 
conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all 
poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for 


There is a square. There is an ohlong. The play- 
ers take the square and place it upon the ohlong. 
They place it very accurately. They make a per- 
fect dwelling-place. The structure is now visible. 
What was inchoate is here stated. We are not 
so various or so mean. We have made oblongs 
and stood them upon squares. This is our tri- 
umph. This is our consolation. 


The Two Real Worlds 

1) The Natural World of the Dynamo, the world of 
masses, identical relations and recurrent events, describ- 
able, not in words but in terms of numbers, or rather, in 
algebraic terms. In this world, Freedom is the conscious- 
ness of Necessity and Justice the equality of all before 
natural law. (JTard cases make bad law.) 

2) The Historical World of the Virgin, the world of 
faces, analogical relations and singular events, describable 
only in terms of speech. In this World, Necessity is the 
consciousness of Freedom and Justice the love of my 

62 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

neighbor as a unique and irreplaceable being. (One law 
for the ox and the ass is oppression.^ 

Since all human experience is that of conscious persons, man’s 
realization that the World of the Dynamo exists in which 
events happen of themselves and cannot be prevented by 
anybody’s art, came later than his realization that the World 
of the Virgin exists. Freedom is an immediate datum of con- 
sciousness; Necessity is not. 

The Two Chimerical Worlds 

1) The magical polytheistic nature created by the aes- 
thetic illusion which would regard the world of masses 
as if it were a world of faces. The aesthetic religion says 
prayers to the Dynamo. 

2) The mechanized history created by the scientific 
illusion which would regard the world of faces as if it 
were a world of masses. The scientific religion treats 
the Virgin as a statistic. “Scientific” politics is animism 
stood on its head. 

Without Art, we could have no notion of Liberty; 
without Science no notion of Equality; without either, 
therefore, no notion of Justice. 

Without Art, we should have no notion of the sacred; 
without Science, we should always worship false gods. 

By nature we tend to endow with a face any power which 
we imagine to be responsible for our lives and behavior; 
vice versa, we tend to deprive of their faces any persons whom 
we believe to be at the mercy of our will. In both cases, we 
are trying to avoid responsibility. In the first case, we wish to 
say: “I can’t help doing what I do; someone else, stranger than 
I, is making me do it” — in the second : “I can do what I like 
to N because N is a thing, an x with no will of its own.” 

The pagan gods of nature do not have real faces but rather 
masks, for a real face expresses a responsibility for itself, and 
the pagan gods are, by definition, irresponsible. It is per- 
missible, and even right, to endow Nature with a real face, 
e.g., the face of the Madonna, for by so doing we make nature 


The Virgin &• The Dynamo 

remind us of our duty towards her, but we may only do this 
after we have removed the pagan mask from her, seen her as 
a world of masses and realized that she is not responsible 
for us. 

Vice versa, the saint can employ the algebraic notion of any 
in his relation to others as an expression of the fact that his 
neighbor is not someone of whom he is personally fond, but 
anybody who happens to need him; but he can only do this 
because he has advanced spiritually to the point where he 
sees nobody as a faceless cypher. 

Henry Adams thought that Venus and the Virgin of Chartres 
were the same persons. Actually, Venus is the Dynamo in 
disguise, a symbol for an impersonal natural force, and Adam’s 
nostalgic preference for Chartres to Chicago was nothing but 
aestheticism; he thought the disguise was prettier than the 
reality, but it was the Dynamo he worshiped, not the Virgin. 


Any world is comprised of a plurality of objects and events. 
Pluralities are of three kinds; crowds, societies and com- 

1) A Crowd 

A crowd is comprised of n>I members whose only re- 
lation is arithmetical; they can only be counted. A crowd 
loves neither itself nor anything other than itself; its 
existence is chimerical. Of a crowd it may be said, either 
that it is not real but only apparent, or that it should 
not be. 

2) A Society 

A society is comprised of a definite or an optimum num- 
ber of members, united in a specific manner into a whole 
with a characteristic mode of behavior which is different 
from the modes of behavior of its component members 
in isolation. A society cannot come into being until its 
component members are present and properly related; 
add or subtract a member, change their relations, and the 
society either ceases to exist or is transformed into an- 

64 1 Tfec Dyer’s Hand 

other society. A society is a system which loves itself; 
to this self-love, the self-love of its members is totally 
subordinate. Of a society it may be said that it is more 
or less efficient in maintaining its existence. 

3) A Community 

A commimity is comprised of n members united, to 
use a definition of Saint Augustine’s, by a common love 
of something other than themselves. Like a crowd and 
unlike a society, its character is not changed by the addi- 
tion or subtraction of a member. It exists, neither by 
chance, like a crowd, nor actually, like a society, but 
potentially, so that it is possible to conceive of a com- 
munity in which, at .present, n=I. In a community all 
members are free and equal. If, out of a group of ten 
persons, nine prefer beef to mutton and one prefers 
mutton to beef, there is not a single community contain- 
ing a dissident member; there are two communities, a 
large one and a small one. To achieve an actual exist- 
ence, it has to embody itself in a society or societies 
which can ejroress the love which is its raison d'etre. A 
community of music lovers, for example, cannot just sit 
around loving music like anything, but must form itself 
into societies like choirs, orchestras, string quartets, etc., 
and make music. Such an embodiment of a community 
in a society is an order. Of a community it may be said 
that its love is more or less good. Such a love presupposes 
choice, so that, in the natural world of the Dynamo, com- 
munities do not exist, only societies which are submem- 
bers of the total system of nature, enjoying their 
self-occurrence. Communities can only exist in the his- 
torical world of the Virgin, but they do not necessarily 
exist there. 

Whenever rival communities compete for embodi- 
ment in the same society, there is either unfreedom or 
disorder. In the chimerical case of a society embodying 
a crowd, there would be a state of total unfreedom and 
disorder; the traditional term for this chimerical state is 
Hell. A perfect order, one in which the community 

The Virgin & The Dynamo 


united by the best love is embodied in the most self- 
sustaining society, could be described, as science de- 
scribes nature, in terms of laws-of, but the description 
would be irrelevant, the relevant description teing, 
"Here, love is the fulfilling of the law” or “In His Will 
is our peace”; the traditional term for this ideal order is 
Paradise. In historical existence where no love is per- 
fect, no society immortal, and no embodiment of the one 
in the other precise, the obligation to approximate to the 
ideal is felt as an imperative “Thou shalt.” 

Man exists as a unity-in-tension of four modes of being: soul, 
body, mind and spirit. 

As soul and body, he is an individual, as mind and spirit 
a member of a society. Were he only soul and body, his only 
relation to others would be numerical and a poem would be 
comprehensible only to its authcsr; were he only mind and 
spirit, men would only exist collectively as the system Man, 
and there would be nothing for a poem to be about. 

As body and mind, man is a natural creature, as soul and 
spirit, a historical person. Were he only body and mind, his 
existence would be one of everlasting recurrence, and only 
one good poem could exist; were he only soul and spirit, his 
existence would be one of perpetual novelty, and every new 
poem would supersede all previous poems, or rather a poem 
would be superseded before it could be written. 

Man’s consciousness is a unity-in-tension of three modes of 

1) A consciousness of the self as self-contained, as em- 
bracing all that it is aware of in a unity of experiencing. 
This mode is undogmatic, amoral and passive; its good is 
the enjoyment of being, its evil the fear of nonbeing. 

2) A consciousness of beyondness, of an ego standing 
as a spectator over against both a self and me extern^ 
world. This mode is dogmatic, amoral, objective. Its 
good is the perception of true relations, its evil the fear 
of accidental or false relations. 

3) The ego’s consciousness of itself as striving-towards. 

66 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

as desiring to transform the self, to realize its potential- 
ities. This mode is moral and active; its good is not pres- 
ent but propounded, its evil, the present actuality. 

Were the first mode absolute, man would inhabit a magical 
world in which the image of an object, the emotion it aroused 
and the word signifying it were all identical, a world where 
past and future, the living and the dead w'ere united. Lan- 
guage in such a world would consist only of proper names 
which would not be words in the ordinary sense but sacred 
syllables, and, in the place of the poet, there would be the 
magician whose task is to discover and utter the truly potent 
spell which can compel what-is-not to be. 

Were the second mode absolute, man would inhabit a world 
which was a pure system of universals. Language would be an 
algebra, and there could exist only one poem, of absolute 
banality, expressing the system. 

Were the third mode absolute, man would inhabit a purely 
arbitrary world, the world of the clown and the actor. In 
language there would be no relation between word and thing, 
love would rhyme with indifference, and all poetry would be 
nonsense poetry. 

Thanks to the first mode of consciousness, every good poem 
is unique; thanks to the second, a poet can embody his private 
experiences in a public poem which can be comprehended by 
others in terms of their private experiences; thanks to the 
third, both poet and reader desire that this be done. 

The subject matter of the scientist is a crowd of natural events 
at all times; he presupposes that this crowd is not real but 
apparent, and seeks to discover the true place of events in the 
system of nature. The subject matter of the poet is a crowd of 
historical occasions of feeling recollected from the past; he pre- 
supposes that this crowd is real but should not be, and seeks 
to transform it into a community. Both science and art are 
primarily spiritual activities, whatever practical applications 
may be derived from their results. Disorder, lack of meaning, 
are spiritual not physical discomforts, order and sense spiritual 
not physical satisfactions. 

The Virgin & The Dynamo 

[ 67 

It is impossible, I believe, for any poet, while he is writing a 
poem, to observe with complete accuracy what is going on, 
to define with any certainty how much of the final result is 
due to subconscious activity over which he has no control, and 
how much is due to conscious artifice. All one can say with 
certainty is negative. A poem does not compose itself in the 
poet’s mind as a child grows in its mother’s womb; some de- 
gree of conscious participation by the poet is necessary, some 
element of craft is always present. On the other hand, the 
writing of poetry is not, like carpentry, simply a craft; a car- 
penter can decide to build a table according to certain speci- 
fications and know before he begins that the result will be 
exactly what he intended, but no poet can know what his 
poem is going to be like until he has written it. The element 
of craftsmanship in poetry is obscured by the fact that all men 
are taught to speak and most to read and write, while very 
few men are taught to draw or paint or write music. Every 
poet, however, in addition to the everyday linguistic training 
he receives, requires a training in the poetic use of language. 
Even those poets who are most vehemendy insistent upon me 
importance of the Muse and the vanity of conscious calcula- 
tion must admit that, if they had never read any poetry in 
their lives, it is unlikely that they would have written any 
themselves. If, in what follows, I refer to the poet, I include 
under that both his Muse and his mind, his subconscious and 
conscious activity. 

The subject matter of a poem is comprised of a crowd of re- 
collected occasions of feeling, among which the most impor- 
tant are recollections of encounters with sacred beings or 
events. This crowd the poet attempts to transform into a 
community by embodying it in a verbal society. Such a soci- 
ety, like any society in nature, has its own laws; its laws of 
prosody and syntax are analogous to the laws of physics and 
chemistry. Every poem must presuppose — sometimes mis- 
takenly — that the history of the language is at an end. 

One should say, rather, that a poem is a natural organism, 
not an inorganic thing. For example, it is rhythmical. The 

68 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

temporal recurrences of rhythm are never identical, as the 
metrical notation would seem to suggest. Rhythm is to time 
what symmetry is to space. Seen from a certain distance, the 
features of a human face seem symmetrically arranged, so that 
a face with a nose a foot long or a left eye situated two inches 
away from the nose would appear monstrous. Close up, how- 
ever, the exact symmetry disappears; the size and position of 
the features vary slightly from face to face and, indeed, if a 
face could exist in which the symmetry were mathematically 
perfect, it would look, not like a face, but like a lifeless mask. 
So with rhythm. A poem may be described as being written 
in iambic pentameters, but if every foot in every line were 
identical, the poem would sound intolerable to the ear. I am 
sometimes inclined to think that the aversion of many modern 
poets and their readers to formal verse may be due to their 
association of regular repetition and formal restrictions with 
all that is most boring and lifeless in modern life, road drills, 
time-clock punching, bureaucratic regulations. 

It has been said that a poem should not mean but be. This 
is not quite accurate. In a poem, as distinct from many other 
kinds of verbal societies, meaning and being are identical. 
A poem might be called a pseudo-person. Like a person, it 
is unique and addresses the reader personally. On the other 
hand, like a natural being and unlike a historical person, it 
cannot lie. We may be and frequently are mistaken as to the 
meaning or the value of a poem, but the cause of our mistake 
lies in our own ignorance or self-deception, not in the poem 

The nature of the final poetic order is the outcome of a dia- 
lectical struggle between the recollected occasions of feeling 
and the verbal system. As a society the verbal system is actively 
coercive upon the occasions it is attempting to embody; what 
it cannot embody truthfully it excludes. As a potential com- 
munity the occasions are passively resistant to all claims of 
the system to embody them which they do not recognize as 
just; they decline all unjust persuasions. As members of 
crowds, every occasion competes with every other, demanding 

The Virgin & The Dynamo [ 69 

inclusion and a dominant position to which fhey are not nec- 
essarily endded, and every word demands that the system shall 
modify itself in its case, that a special exception shall be made 
for it and it only. 

In a successful poem, society and community are one order 
and the system may love itself because the feelings which it 
embodies are all members of the same community, loving each 
other and it. A poem may fail in two ways; it may exclude too 
much (banality^, or attempt to embody more than one com- 
munity at once (disorder). 

In writing a poem, the poet can work in two ways. Starting 
from an intuitive idea of the kind of community he desires to 
call into being, he may work backwards in search of the sys- 
tem which will most justly incarnate that idea, or, starting 
with a certain system, he may work forward in search of the 
community which it is capable of incarnating most truthfully. 
In practice he nearly always works simultaneously in bom 
directions, modifying his conception of the ultimate nature 
of the community at the immediate suggestions of the system, 
and modifying the system in response to his growing intuition 
of the future needs of the community. 

A system cannot be selected completely arbitrarily nor can 
one say that any given system is absolutely necessary. The poet 
searches for one which imposes just obligations on the feel- 
ings. “Ought” always implies “can” so that a system whose 
claims cannot be met must be scrapped. But the poet has to 
beware of accusing the system of injustice when what is at 
fault is the laxness and self-love of the feelings upon which 
it is making its demands. 

Every poet, consciously or unconsciously, holds the following 
absolute presuppositions, as the dogmas of his art: 

I ) A historical world exists, a world of unique events 
and unique persons, related by analogy, not identity. 
The number of events and analogical relations is poten- 
tially infinite. The existence of such a world is a good, 
and every addition to the number of events, persons and 
relations is an additional good. 

7° ] Dyer's Hand 

2) The historical world is a fallen world, i.e., though 
it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, 
being full of unfreedom and disorder. 

3) The historical world is a redeemable world. The 
unfreedom and disorder of the past can be reconciled in 
the future. 

It follows from the first presupposition that the poet's ac- 
tivity in creating a poem is analogous to God’s activity in 
creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for 
were it so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; 
instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre- 
existing language out of which to create. It is analogous in 
that the poet creates not necessarily according to a law of 
nature but voluntarily according to provocation. 

It is untrue, strictly speaking, to say that a poet should not 
write poems unless he must; strictly speaking it can only be 
said that he should not write them unless he can. The phrase 
is sound in practice, because only in those who can and when 
they can is the motive genuinely compulsive. 

In those who profess a desire to write poetry, yet exhibit 
an incapacity to do so, it is often the case that their desire is 
not for creation but for self-perpetuation, that they refuse to 
accept their own mortality, just as there are parents who desire 
children, not as new persons analogous to themselves, but to 
prolong their own existence in time. The sterility of this 
substitution of identity for analogy is expressed in the myth 
of Narcissus. When the poet speaks, as he sometimes does, of 
achieving immortality through his poem, he does not mean 
that he hopes, like Faust, to live for ever, but that he hopes 
to rise from the dead. In poetry as in other matters the law 
holds good that he who would save his life must lose it; unless 
the poet sacrifices his feelings completely to the poem so that 
they are no longer his but the poem’s, he fails. 

It follows from the second presupposition, that a poem is a 
witness to man’s knowledge of evil as well as good. It is not 
the duty of a witness to pass moral judgment on the evidence 
he has to give, but to give it clearly and accurately; the only 

The Virgin & The Dynamo 

crime of which a witness can be guilty is perjury. When we 
say that poetry is beyond good and evil, we simply mean that 
a poet can no more change the facts of what he has felt than, 
in the natural order, parents can change the inherited physical 
characteristics which they pass on to their children. The judg- 
ment good-or-evil applies only to the intentional movements 
of the will. Of our feelings in a given situation which are the 
joint product of our intention and the response to the external 
factors in that situation it can only he said that, given an 
intention and the response, they are appropriate or inappro- 
priate. Of a recollected feeling it cannot be said that it is 
appropriate or inappropriate because the historical situation in 
which it arose no longer exists. 

Every poem, therefore, is an attempt to present an analogy 
to that paradisal state in which Freedom and Law, System and 
Order are united in harmony. Every good poem is very 
nearly a Utopia. Again, an analogy, not an imitation; the 
harmony is possible and verbal only. 

It follows from the diird presupposition that a poem is beau- 
tiful or ugly to the degree that it succeeds or fails in reconcil- 
ing contradictory feelings in an order of mutual propriety. 
Every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness 
of sins; an analogy, not an imitation, because it is not evil 
intentions which are repented of and pardoned but contradic- 
tory feelings which the poet surrenders to the poem in which 
they are reconciled. 

The effect of beauty, therefore, is good to the degree that, 
through its analogies, the goodness of created existence, the 
historical fall into unfreedom and disorder, and the possibility 
of regaining paradise through repentance and forgiveness are 
recognized. Its effect is evil to the degree that beauty is taken, 
not as analogous to, but identical with goodness, so that the 
artist regards himself or is regarded by others as God, the 
pleasure of beauty taken for the joy of Paradise, and the con- 
clusion drawn that, since all is well in the work of art, all is 
well in history. But all is not well there. 


. . . Being everything, let us admit that is to he 

Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt . . . 


There is little or nothing to be remembered 
written on the subject of getting an honest living. 
Neither the New Testament nor Poor Richard 
s-peaks to our condition. One would never think, 
from looking at literature, that this question had 
ever disturbed a solitary individual’s musings. 


It is astonishing how many young people of both sexes, when 
asked what they want to do in life, give neither a sensible an- 
swer like “I want to be a lawyer, an innkeeper, a farmer” nor 
a romantic answer like “I want to be an explorer, a racing 
motorist, a missionary, President of the United States.” A sur- 
prisingly large number say “I want to be a writer,” and by 
writing they mean “creative” writing. Even if they say “I 
want to be a journalist,” this is because they are under the 

The Poet & The City [ 73 

illusion that in that profession they will be able to create; even 
if their genuine desire is to make money, they will select some 
highly paid subliterary pursuit like Advertising. 

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked 
literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for 
any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is 
that such a high percentage of those without any marked tal- 
ent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. 
One would have expected that a certain number would imag- 
ine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so 
on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is 
untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to 
write. (There are, no doubt, a lot without any talent for act- 
ing who dream of becoming film stars but they have at least 
been endowed by nature with a fairly attractive face and 

In accepting and defending the social institution of slavery, 
the Greeks were harder-hearted than we but clearer-headed; 
they knew that labor as such is slavery, and that no man can 
feel a personal pride in being a laborer. A man can be proud 
of being a worker — someone, that is, who fabricates enduring 
objects, but in our society, the process of fabrication has been 
so rationalized in the interests of speed, economy and quantity 
that the part played by the individual factory employee has 
become too small for it to be meaningful to him as work, and 
practically all workers have been reduced to laborers. It is 
only natural, therefore, that the arts which cannot be ration- 
alized in this way — the artist still remains personally responsi- 
ble for what he makes — should fascinate those who, because 
they have no marked talent, are afraid, with good reason, that 
all they have to look forward to is a lifetime of meaningless 
labor. This fascination is not due to the nature of art itself, but 
to the way in which an artist works; he, and in our age, al- 
most nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s 
own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to 
lead to the fantestic hope that the capacity for artistic creation 
is universal, something nearly all human beings, by virtue, not 

74 ] Tfcc Dyer’s Hand 

of some special talent, but of their humanity, could do if they 

Until quite recently a man was proud of not having to earn 
his own living and ashamed of being obliged to earn it, but 
today, would any man dare describe himself when applying 
for a passport as Gentleman, even if, as a matter of fact, he 
has independent means and no job?^ Today, the question 
“What do you do?” means “How do you earn your living?” 
On my own passport I am described as a “Writer”; this is not 
embarrassing for me in dealing with the authorities, because 
immigration and customs officials know that some kinds of 
writers make lots of money. But if a stranger in the train asks 
me my occupation, I never answer “writer” for fear that he 
may go on to ask me what I write, and to answer “poetry” 
would embarrass us both, for we both know that nobody can 
earn a living simply by writing poetry. (The most satisfactory 
answer I have discovered, satisfactory because it withers 
curiosity, is to say Medieval Historian.) 

Some writers, even some poets, become famous public figures, 
but writers as such have no social status, in the way that doc- 
tors and lawyers, whether famous or obscure, have. 

There are two reason for this. Firstly, the scK:alled fine arts 
have lost the social utility they once had. Since the invention 
of printing and the spread of literacy, verse no longer has a 
utility value as a mnemonic, a device by which knowledge and 
culture were handed on from one generation to the next, and, 
since the invention of the camera, the draughtsman and 
painter are no longer needed to provide visual documentation; 
they have, consequently, become “pure” arts, that is to say, 
gratuitous activities. Secondly, in a society governed by the 
values appropriate to Labor (capitalist America may well be 
more completely governed by these than communist Russia) 
the gratuitous is no longer regarded — most earlier cultures 
thought differently — as sacred, Mcause, to Man the Laborer, 
leisure is not sacred but a respite from laboring, a time for 
relaxation and the pleasures of consumption. In so far as such 
a society thinks about the gratuitous at all, it is suspicious of 

The Poet & The City 

[ 75 

it — ^artists do not labor, therefore, they are prohaUy' parasitic 
idlers — or, at best, regards it as trivial — to write poetry or 
paint pictures is a harmless private hobby. 

In the purely gratuitous arts, poetry, painting, music, our 
century has no need, I believe, to be ashamed of its achieve- 
ments, and in its fabrication of purely utile and functional 
articles like airplanes, dams, surgical instruments, it surpasses 
any previous age. But whenever it attempts to combine the 
gratuitous with the utile, to fabricate something which shall 
be both functional and beautiful, it fails utterly. No previous 
age has created anything so hideous as the average modern 
automobile, lampshade or building, whether domestic or pub- 
lic. What could be more terrifying than a modern office 
building? It seems to be saying to the white-collar slaves who 
work in it: “For labor in this age, the human body is much 
more complicated than it need be: you would do better and 
be happier if it were simplified.” 

In the affluent countries today, thanks to the high per capita 
income, small houses and scarcity of domestic servants, there 
is one art in which we probably excel all other societies that 
ever existed, the art of cooking. CIt is the one art which Man 
the Laborer regards as sacred.) If the world population con- 
tinues to increase at its present rate, this cultural glory will 
be short-lived, and it may well be that future historians will 
look nostalgically back to the years 1950-1975 as The Golden 
Age of Cuisine. It is difficult to imagine a haute cuisine based 
on algae and chemically treated grass. 

A poet, painter or musician has to accept the divorce in his 
art between the gratuitous and the utile as a fact for, if he 
rebels, he is liable to fall into enor. 

Had Tolstoi, when he wrote What Is Art?, been content 
with the proposition, “When the gratuitious and the utile are 
divorced from each other, there can be no art,” one might 
have disagreed with him, but he would have been difficult to 
refute. But he was unwilling to say that, if Shakespeare and 
himself were not artists, there was no modem art. Instead he 

j6 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

tried to persuade himself that utility alone, a spiritual utility 
maybe, but still utility without gratuity, was sufficient to pro- 
duce art, and this compelled him to be dishonest and praise 
works which aesthetically he must have despised. The notion 
of I'art engage and art as propaganda are extensions of this 
heresy, and when poets fall into it, the cause, I fear, is less 
their social conscience than their vanity; they are nostalgic 
for a past when poets had a public status. The opposite heresy 
is to endow the gratuitous with a magic utility of its own, so 
that the poet comes to think of himself as the god who creates 
his subjective universe out of nothing — to him the visible 
material universe is nothing. Mallarm4, who planned to write 
the sacred book of a new universal religion, and Rilke with 
his notion of Gesang ist Dasein, are heresiarchs of this type. 
Both were geniuses but, admire them as one may and must, 
one’s final impression of their work is of something false and 
unreal. As Erich Heller says of Rilke: 

In the great poetry of the European tradition, the emo- 
tions do not interpret; they respond to the interpreted 
world: in Rilke’s mature poetry the emotions do the in- 
terpreting and then respond to their own interpretation. 

In all societies, educational facilities are limited to those ac- 
tivities and habits of behavior which a particular society con- 
siders important. In a culture like that of Wales in the Middle 
Ages, which regarded poets as socially important, a would-be 
poet, like a would-be dentist in our own culture, was sys- 
tematically trained and admitted to the rank of poet only after 
meeting high professional standards. 

In our culture a would-be poet has to educate himself; he 
may be in the position to go to a first-class school and univer- 
sity, but such places can only contribute to his poetic educa- 
tion by accident, not by design. This has its drawbacks; a good 
deal of modern poetry, even some of the best, shows just that 
uncertainty of taste, crankiness and egoism which self-edu- 
cated people so often exhibit. 

A metropolis can be a wonderful place for a mature artist to 
live in, but, unless his parents are very poor, it is a dangerous 

The Poet Gr The City [ 77 

place for a would-be artist to grow up in; he is confronted with 
too much of the best in art too soon. This is like having a 
liaison with a wise and beautiful woman twenty years older 
than himself; all too often his fate is that of Cheri. 

In my daydream College for Bards, the curriculum would be 
as follows: 

1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, 
probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modem languages 
would be required. 

2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would 
be learned by heart. 

3) The library would contain no books of literary criti- 
cism, and the only critical exercise required of students 
would be the writing of parodies. 

4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philol- 
ogy would be required of all students, and every student 
would have to select three courses out of courses in 
mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, 
archaeology, mythology, liturgies, cooking. 

5) Every student would be required to look after a do- 
mestic, animal and cultivate a garden plot. 

A poet has not only to educate himself as a poet, he has also 
to consider how he is going to earn his living. Ideally, he 
should have a job which does not in any way involve the 
manipulation of words. At one time, children training to be- 
come rabbis were also taught some skilled manual trade, and 
if only they knew their child was going to become a poet, 
the best thing parents could do would be to get him at an 
early age into some Craft Trades Union. Unfortunately, they 
cannot know this in advance, and, except in very rare cases, 
by the time he is twenty-one, the only nonliterary job for 
which a poet-to-be is qualified is unskilled manual labor. In 
earning his living, the average poet has to choose between 
being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of 
advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly 
detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free 
him from leading a too exclusively literary life. 

78 ] The Dyer's Hand 

TTiere are four aspects of our present Weltanschauung which 
have made an artistic vocation more difficult than it used to 

1) The loss of belief in the eternity of the •physical uni- 
verse. The possibility of becoming an artist, a maker of 
things which shall outlast the maker’s life, might never 
have occurred to man, had he not had before his eyes, in 
contrast to the transitoriness of human life, a universe of 
things, earth, ocean, sky, sun, moon, stars, etc., which 
appeared to be everlasting and unchanging. 

Physics, geology and biology have now replaced this 
everlasting universe with a picture of nature as a process 
in which nothing is now what it was or what it will be. 
Today, Christian and Atheist alike are eschatologically 
minded. It is difficult for a modem artist to believe he can 
make an enduring object when he has no model of en- 
durance to go by; he is more tempted than his predeces- 
sors to abandon the search for perfection as a waste of 
time and be content with sketches and improvisations. 

2) The loss of belief in the significance and reality of 
sensory phenomena. This loss has been progressive since 
Luther, who denied any intelligible relation between 
subjective Faith and objective Works, and Descartes, with 
his doctrine of primary and secondary qualities. Hitherto, 
the traditional conception of the phenomenal world had 
been one of sacramental analogies; what the senses per- 
ceived was an outward and visible sign of the inward and 
invisible, but both were believed to be real and valuable. 
Modern science has destroyed our faith in the naive ob- 
servation of our senses: we cannot, it tells us, ever know 
what the physical universe is really like; we can only 
hold whatever subjective notion is appropriate to the 
particular human purpose we have in view. 

This destroys the traditional conception of art as 
mimesis, for there is no longer a nature “out there” to 
be truly or falsely imitated; all an artist can be true to are 
his subjective sensations and feelings. The change in atti- 

The Poet & The City 

I 79 

tude is already to be seen in Blake's remark that^some 
people see the sun as a round golden disc the size of a 
guinea but that he sees it as a host crying Holy, Holy, 
Holy. What is significant about this is that Blake, like 
the Newtonians he hated, accepts a division between the 
physical and the spiritual, but, in opposition to them, re- 
gards the material universe as the ab^e of Satan, and so 
attaches no value to what his physical eye sees. 

3) The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which 
will always require the same kind of man-fabricated 
world to be at home in. Until the Industrial Revolution, 
the way in which men lived changed so slowly that any 
man, thinking of his great-grandchildren, could imagine 
them as people living the same kind of life with the same 
kind of needs and satisfactions as himself. Technology, 
with its ever-accelerating transformation of man’s way 
of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what 
life will be like even twenty years from now. 

Further, until recently, men knew and cared little 
about cultures far removed from their own in time or 
space; by human nature, they meant the kind of behavior 
exhibited in their own culture. Anthropology and archae- 
ology have destroyed this provincial notion; we know 
that human nature is so plastic that it can exhibit varie- 
ties of behavior which, in the animal kingdom, could 
only be exhibited by different species. 

The artist, therefore, no longer has any assurance, 
when he makes something, that even the next genera- 
tion will find it enjoyable or comprehensible. 

He cannot help desiring an immediate success, with 
all the danger to his integrity which that implies. 

Further, me fact that we now have at our disposal the 
arts of all ages and cultures, has completely changed the 
meaning of the word tradition. It no longer means a way 
of working handed down from one generation to the 
next; a sense of tradition now means a consciousness of 
the whole of the past as present, yet at the same time 
as a structured whole the parts of which are related in 

8o ] The Dyer’s. Hand 

terms of before and after. Originality no longer means a 
slight modification in the style of one’s imm^iate prede- 
cessors; it means a capacity to find in any work of any 
date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice. The 
burden of choice and selection is put squarely upon the 
shoulders of each individual poet and it is a heavy one. 

4) The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere 
of revelatory personal deeds. To the Greeks the Private 
Realm was the sphere of life ruled by the necessity of 
sustaining life, and the Public Realm the sphere of free- 
dom where a man could disclose himself to others. To- 
day, the significance of the terms private and public has 
been reversed; public life is the necessary impersonal life, 
the place where a man fulfills his social function, and it 
is in his private life that he is free to be his personal self. 

In consequence the arts, literature in particular, have 
lost their traditional principal human subject, the man 
of action, the doer of public deeds. 

The advent of the machine has destroyed the direct relation 
between a man’s intention and his deed. If St. George meets 
the dragon face to face and plunges a spear into its heart, he 
may legitimately say “I slew the dragon,” but, if he drops a 
bomb on the dragon from an altitude of twenty thousand feet, 
though his intention — to slay it — is the saine, his act consists 
in pressing a lever and it is the bomb, not St. George, that 
does the killing. 

If, at Pharaoh’s command, ten thousand of his subjects toil 
for five years at draining the fens, this means that Pharaoh 
commands the personal loyalty of enough persons to see that 
his orders are carried out; if his army revolts, he is powerless. 
But if Pharaoh can have the fens drained in six months by 
a hundred men with bulldozers, the situation is changed. He 
still needs some authority, enough to persuade a hundred men 
to man the bulldozers, but that is all: the rest of the work is 
done by machines which know nothing of loyalty or fear, and 
if his enemy, Nebuchadnezzar, should get hold of them, they 
will work just as efficiently at filling up the canals as they 

The Poet & The City [ 8i 

have just worked at digging them out. It is now possible to 
imagine a world in which the only human work on such 
projects will be done by a mere handful of persons who operate 

It is extremely difficult today to use public figures as themes 
for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less 
upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity 
of impersonal force at their disposal. 

Every British or American poet will agree that Winston 
Churchill is a greater figure than Charles II, but he will also 
know that he could not write a good poem on Churchill, 
while Dryden had no difficulty in writing a good poem on 
Charles. To write a good poem on Churchill, a poet would 
have to know Winston Churchill intimately, and his poem 
would be about the man, not about the Prime Minister. All 
attempts to write about persons or events, however important, 
to which the poet is not intimately related in a personal way 
are now doomed to failure. Yeats could write great poetry 
about the Troubles in Ireland, because most of the protagonists 
were known to him personally and the places where the events 
occurred had been familiar to him since childhood. 

The true men of action in our time, those who transform 
the world, are not the politicians and statesmen, but the 
scientists. Unfortunately poetry cannot celebrate them be- 
cause their deeds are concerned with things, not persons, and 
are, therefore, speechless. 

When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like 
a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing 
room full of dukes. 

The growth in size of societies and the development of mass 
media of communication have created a social phenomenon 
which was unknown to the ancient world, that peculiar kind 
of crowd which Kierkegaard calls The Public. 

A public is neither a nation nor a generation, nor a com- 
munity, nor a society, nor these particular men, for all 

82 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

these are only what they are through the concrete; no 
single person who belongs to the public makes a real 
commitment; for some hours of the day, perhaps, he be- 
longs to the public — at moments when he is nothing else, 
since when he really is what he is, he does not form part 
of the public. Made up of such individuals at the mo- 
ments when they are nothing, a public is a kind of 
gigantic something, an abstract and deserted void which 
is everything and nothing. 

The ancient world knew the phenomenon of the crowd in the 
sense that Shakespeare uses the word, a visible congregation 
of a large number of human individuals in a limited physical 
space, who can, on occasions, be transformed by demagogic 
oratory into a mob which behaves in a way of which none 
of its members would be capable by himself, and this phenom- 
enon is known, of course, to us, too. But the public is something 
else. A student in the subway during the rush hour whose 
thoughts are concentrated on a mathematical problem or his 
girl friend is a member of a crowd but not a member of the 
public. To join the public, it is not necessary for a man to go 
to some particular spot; he can sit at home, open a newspaper 
or turn on his TV set. 

A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his 
children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized 
stink. The public is odorless. 

A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The 
public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor 
sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob 
beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas 

The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or 
poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it: it even 
tolerates a pseudo revolt against itself, that is, the formation 
within itself of clique publics. 

In a crowd, a passion like rage or terror is highly contagious; 
each member of a crowd excites all the others, so that passion 

The Poet & The City [ 83 

increases at a geometric rate. But among members of the 
Public, there is no contact. If two memrers of the public 
meet and speak to each other, the function of their words 
is not to convey meaning or arouse passion but to conceal by 
noise the silence and solitude of the void in which the Public 

Occasionally the Public embodies itself in a crowd and so be- 
comes visible — ^in the crowd, for example, which collects to 
watch the wrecking gang demolish the old family mansion, 
fascinated by yet another proof that physical force is the 
Prince of this world against whom no love of the heart shall 

Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, 
there existed naive art and sophisticated art which were dif- 
ferent from each other but only in the way that two brothers 
are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ 
play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. 
Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie 
that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; 
the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric 
sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media 
which cater to it have destroyed naive popular art. The sophis- 
ticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did 
a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to 
interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular 
artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from 
him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from 
a few comedians, the only art to^y is “highbrow.” What the 
mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which 
is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced 
by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all 
genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural 

The two characteristics of art which make it possible for an 
art historian to divide the history of art into periods, are, 
firstly, a common style of expression over a certain period and, 

84 ] The Dyer's Hand 

secondly, a common notion, explicit or implicit, of the hero, 
the kind of human being who most deserves to be celebrated, 
remembered and, if possible, imitated. The characteristic style 
of “Modem” poetry is an intimate tone of voice, the speech 
of one person addressing one person, not a large audience; 
whenever a modern poet raises his voice he sounds phony. 
And its characteristic hero is neither the “Great Man” nor the 
romantic rebel, both doers of extraordinary deeds, but the man 
or woman in any walk of life who, despite all the impersonal 
pressures of modern society, manages to acquire and preserve 
a face of his own. 

Poets are, by the nature of their interests and the nature of 
artistic fabrication, singularly ill-equipped to understand pol- 
itics or economics. Their natural interest is in singular in- 
dividuals and personal relations, while politics and economics 
are concerned with large numbers of people, hence with 
the human average (the poet is bored to death by the idea 
of the Common Man) and with impersonal, to a great extent 
involuntary, relations. The poet cannot understand the func- 
tion of money in modern society because for him there is no 
relation between subjective value and market value; he may 
be paid ten pounds for a poem which he believes is very good 
and took him months to write, and a hundred pounds for a 
piece of journalism which costs him but a day’s work. If he 
is a successful poet — though few poets make enough money 
to be called successful in the way that a novelist or play- 
wright can — he is a member of the Manchester school and 
believes in absolute laisser-faire; if he is unsuccessful and em- 
bittered, he is liable to combine aggressive fantasies about 
the annihilation of the present order with impractical day- 
dreams of Utopia. Society has always to beware of the 
utopias being planned by artists manques over cafeteria tables 
late at night. 

All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, con- 
flagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic 
imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman. 

The Poet & The City I 85 

In a war or a revolution, a poet may do very well as a guerilla 
fighter 01 a spy, but it is unlikely that he will malce a good 
regular soldier, or, in peace time, a conscientious member of 
a parliamentary committee. 

All political dieories which, like Plato’s, are based on analogies 
drawn from artistic fabrication are bound, if put into practice, 
to turn into tyrannies. The whole aim of a poet, or any other 
kind of artist, is to produce something which is complete and 
will endure without change. A poetic city would always con- 
tain exactly the same numoer of inhabitants doing exacdy the 
same jobs for ever. 

Moreover, in the process of arriving at the finished work, 
the artist has continually to employ violence. A poet writes: 

The mast-high anchor dives through a cleft 
changes it to 

The anchor dives through closing paths . 
changes it again to 

The anchor dives among hayricks 

and finally to 

The anchor dives through the floors of a church. 

A cleft and closing faihs have been liquidated, and hay- 
ricks deported to another stanza. 

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying 
the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and sub- 
ordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of 
horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a 
society could only come into being through selective breed- 
ing, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, abso- 
lute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept 
out of sight in cellars. 

Vice versa, a poem which was really like a political democ- 
racy — examples, unfortunately, exist — ^would be formless, 
windy, banal and utterly boring. 

86 ] The Dyer’s Hand 

There are two kinds of political issues. Party issues and Revo- 
lutionary issues. In a party issue, all parties are agreed as to 
the nature and justice of the social goal to be reached, but 
differ in their policies for reaching it. The existence of dif- 
ferent parties is justified, firstly, b^use no party can offer 
irrefutable proof that its policy is the only one which will 
achieve the commonly desired goal and, secondly, because 
no social goal can be achieved without some sacrifice of 
individual or group interest and it is natural for each individ- 
ual and social group to seek a policy which will keep its sacri- 
fice to a minimum, to hope that, if sacrifices must be made, it 
would be more just if someone else made them. In a party 
issue, each party seeks to convince the members of its society, 
primarily by appealing to their reason; it marshals facts and 
arguments to convince others that its policy is more likely to 
achieve the desired goal than that of its opponents. On a party 
issue it is essential that passions be kept at a low temperature: 
effective oratory requires, of course, some appeal to the emo- 
tions of the audience, but in party politics orators should dis- 
play the mock-passion of prosecuting and defending attorneys, 
not really lose their tempers. Outside the Chamber, the rival 
deputies should be able to dine in each other’s houses; fanatics 
have no place in party politics. 

A revolutionary issue is one in which different groups 
within a society hold different views as to what is just. When 
this is the case, argument and compromise are out of the 
question; each group is bound to regard the other as wicked 
or mad or both. Every revolutionary issue is potentially a 
casus belli. On a revolutionary issue, an orator cannot con- 
vince his audience by appealing to their reason; he may con- 
vert some of them by awakening and appealing to their 
conscience, but his principal function, whether he represent 
the revolutionary or the counterrevolutionary group, is to 
arouse its passion to the point where it will give all its energies 
to achieving total victory for itself and total defeat for its 
opponents. When an issue is revolutionary, fanatics are es- 

The Poet & The City [ 87 

Today, there is only one genuine world-wide revolutionary 
issue, racial equality. The debate between capitalism, socialism 
and communism is really a party issue, because the goal which 
all seek is really the same, a goal which is summed up in 
Brecht’s well-known line: 

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral. 

I.e., Grub first, then Ethics. In all the technologically advanced 
countries today, whatever political label they give diemselves, 
their policies have, essentially, the same goal : to guarantee to 
every member of society, as a psychophysical organism, the 
right to physical and mental health. The positive symbolic 
figure of this goal is a naked anonymous baby, the negative 
symbol, a mass of anonymous concentration camp corpses. 

What is so terrifying and immeasurably depressing about 
most contemporary politics is the refusal — ^mainly but not, 
alas, only by the communists — ^to admit that this is a party 
issue to he settled by appeal to facts and reason, the insistence 
that there is a revolutionary issue between us. If an African 
gives his life for the cause of racial equality, his death is 
meaningful to him; but what is utterly absurd, is that people 
should be deprived every day of their liberties and their lives, 
and that the human race may quite possibly destroy itself 
over what is really a matter of practical policy like asking 
whether, given its particular historical circumstances, the 
health of a community is more or less likely to be secured 
by Private Practice or by Socialized Medicine. 

What is peculiar and novel to our age is that the principal 
goal of politics in every advanced society is not, strictly speak- 
ing, a political one, that is to say, it is not concerned with 
human beings as persons and citizens but with human bodies, 
with the precultural, prepolitical human creature. It is, per- 
haps, inevitable that respect for the liberty of the individual 
should have so gready diminished and the authoritarian 
powers of the State have so gready increased from what they 
were fifty years ago, for the main political issue today is con- 
cerned not with human liberties but with human necessities. 

88 ] The Dyers Hand 

As creatures we are all equally slaves to natural necessity; we 
are not free to vote how much food, sleep, light and air we 
need to keep in good health; we all need a certain quantity, 
and we all need the same quantity. 

Every age is one-sided in its political and social preoccupation 
and in seeking to realize the particular value it esteems most 
highly, it ne^ects and even sacrifices other values. The re- 
lation of a poet, or any artist, to society and politics is, except 
in Africa or still backward semifeudal countries, more difficult 
than it has ever been because, while he cannot but approve 
of the importance of everybody getting enough food to eat 
and enough leisure, this problem has nothing whatever to do 
with art, which is concerned with singular -persons, as they are 
alone and as they are in their personal relations. Since these 
interests are not the predominant ones in his society; indeed, 
in so far as it thinks about them at all, it is with suspicion and 
latent hostility — it secretly or openly thinks that the claim that 
one is a singular person, or a demand for privacy, is putting 
on airs, a claim to be superior to other folk — every artist feels 
himself at odds with modern civilization. 

In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political 
act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and 
think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even 
if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the 
Management of something managers need to be reminded of, 
namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anony- 
mous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens. 

If a poet meets an illiterate peasant, they may not be able to 
say much to each other, but if they both meet a public official, 
they share the same feeling of suspicion; neither will trust one 
further than he can throw a grand piano. If they enter a gov- 
ernment building, both share the same feeling of apprehen- 
sion; perhaps they will never get out again. Whatever the 
cultural differences between them, they both sniff in any 
official world the smell of an unreality in which persons are 
treated as statistics. The peasant may play cards in the evening 

The Poet & The City f 89 

while the poet writes verses, but there is one political prin- 
ciple to which they both sukcribe, namely, that among the 
half dozen or so things for which a man of honor should be 
prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to 
mvolity, is not the least. 


The Well of Narcissus 


A mirror has no heart hut plenty of ideas. 



Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique 
and impossible to get rid of as his ^adow. 

A parlor game for a wet afternoon — imagining the mirrors 
of one’s friends. A has a huge pier glass, gilded and baroque, 
B a discreet little pocket mirror in a pigskin case with his 
initials stamped on the back; whenever one looks at C, he is 
in the act of throwing his mirror away but, if one looks in his 
pocket or up his sleeve, one always finds another, like an 
extra ace. 

Most, perhaps all, our mirrors are inaccurate and uncompli- 
mentary', though to varying degrees and in various ways. 

The Well of Narcissus 

94 ] 

Some magnify, some diminish, others return lugubrious, comic, 
derisive, or terrifying images. 

But the properties of our own particular mirror are not so 
important as we sometimes like to think. We shall be judged, 
not by the kind of mirror found on us, but by the use we 
have made of it, by our riposte to our reflection. 

The psychoanalyst says: “Come, my good man, I know what 
is the matter with you. You have a distorting mirror. No won- 
der you feel guilty. But cheer up. For a slight consideration 
I shall be delighted to correct it for you. There! Look! A per- 
fect image. Not a trace of distortion. Now you are one of the 
elect. That will be five thousand dollars, please.” 

And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of 
that man is worse than the first. 

The politician, secular or clerical, promises the crowd that, 
if only they will hand in their private mirrors to him, to be 
melted down into one large public mirror, the curse of Nar- 
cissus will be taken away. 

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it 
is beautiful, but because it is his. If it were his beauty that 
enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its 

“After all,” sighed Narcissus the hunchback, “on me it looks 

The contemplation of his reflection does not turn Narcissus 
into Priapus: the spell in which he is trapped is not a desire 
for himself but the satisfaction of not desiring the nymphs. 

“I prefer my pistol to my p . . . ,” said Narcissus; “it cannot 
take aim without my permission” — and took a pot shot at 

Narcissus (drunk): "I shouldn't look at me like that, if I 
were you. I suppose you think you know who I am. Well, let 
me tell you, my dear, that one of these days you are going 
to get a very big surprise indeed!” 


[ 95 

A vain woman comes to realize that vanity is a ski and in 
order not to succumb to temptation, has all the mirrors re- 
moved from her house. Consequently, in a short while she 
cannot remember how she looks. She remembers that vanity 
is sinful but she forgets that she is vain. 

He who des'pises himself, nevertheless esteems himself as a 
self-despiser. (nietzsche.) A vain person is always vain 
about something. He overestimates the importance of some 
quality or exaggerates the degree to which he possesses it, 
but the quality has some real importance and he does possess 
it to some degree. The fantasy of overestimation or exag- 
geration makes the vain person comic, but the fact that he 
cannot be vain about nothing makes his vanity a venial sin, 
because it is always open to correction by appeal to objective 

A proud person, on the other hand, is not proud of any- 
thing, he is proud, he exists proudly. Pride is neither comic 
nor venial, but the most mortal of all sins because, lacking 
any basis in concrete particulars, it is both incorrigible and 
absolute: one cannot be more or less proud, only proud or 

Thus, if a painter tries to portray the Seven Deadly Sins, 
his experience will furnish him readily enough with images 
symbolic of Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Anger, Avarice, and Envy, 
for all these are qualities of a person’s relations to others and 
the world, but no experience can provide an image of Pride, 
for the relation it qualifies is the subjective relation of a 
person to himself. In the seventh frame, therefore, the painter 
can only place, in lieu of a canvas, a mirror. 

Le Moi est toujours haissahle. (pascal.) True enough, but 
it is equally true that only le Moi is lovable in itself, not merely 
as an object of desire. 


The absolutely banal — ^my sense of my own uniqueness. How 
strange that one should treasure this more than any of the 

The Well of Narcissus 

96 1 

exciting and interesting exj«riences, emotions, ideas that 
come and go, leaving it unchanged and unmoved. 

The ego which recalls a previous condition of a now changed 
Self cannot believe that it, too, has changed. The Ego fancies 
that it is like Zeus who could assume one bodily appearance 
after another, now a swan, now a bull, while all the time 
remaining Zeus. Remembering some wrong or foolish action 
of the past, the Ego feels shame, as one feels ashamed of 
having been seen in bad company, at having been associated 
with a Self whom it regards as responsible for the act. Shame, 
not guilt; guilt, it fancies, is what the Self should feel. 

Every autobiography is concerned with two characters, a Don 
Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self. In one kind 
of autobiography the Self occupies the stage and narrates, like 
a Greek Messenger, what the Ego is doing off stage. In 
another kind it is the Ego who is narrator and the Self who is 
described without being able to answer back. If the same 
person were to write his autobiography twice, first in one 
mode and then in the other, the two accounts would be so 
different that it would be hard to believe that they referred 
to the same person. In one he would appear as an obsessed 
creature, a passionate Knight forever serenading Faith or 
Beauty, humorless and over-life-size: in the other as coolly 
detached, full of humor and self-mockery, lacking in a 
capacity for affection, easily bored and smaller than life-size. 
As Don Quixote seen by Sancho Panza, he never prays; as 
Sancho Panza seen by Don Quixote, he never giggles. 

An honest self-portrait is extremely rare because a man who 
has reached the degree of self-consciousness presupposed by 
the desire to paint his own portrait has almost always also 
developed an ego-consciousness which paints himself painting 
himself, and introduces artificial highlights and dramatic 

As an autobiographer, Boswell is almost alone in his hon- 

I determined, if the Cyprian Fury should seize me, to 

participate my amorous name with a genteel girl. 

Hie et llle [ 97 

Stendhal would never have dared write such a sentence. He 
would have said to himself: “Phrases like Cyprian fury and 
amorous flame are cliches; I must put down in plain words 
exactly what I mean.” But he would have been wrong,, for 
the Self tliinks in cliches and euphemisms, not in the style 
of the Code Napoleon. 

History is, strictly speaking, the study of questions; the study 
of answers belongs to anthropology and sociology. To ask a 
question is to declare war, to make some issue a casus belli; 
history proper is the history of batdes, physical, intellectual or 
spiritual and, the more revolutionary the outcome, the greater 
the historical interest. Culture is history which has become 
dormant or extinct, a second nature. A good historian is, of 
course, both a historian in the strict sense and a sociologist. 
So far as the life of an individual is concerned, an autobiog- 
raphy probably gives a truer picture of a man’s history than 
even the best biography could have done. But a biographer 
can perceive what an autobiographer cannot, a man’s culture, 
the influence upon his life of the presuppositions which he 
takes for granted. 

It is possible to imagine oneself as rich when one is poor, as 
beautiful when ugly, as generous when stingy, etc., but it is 
impossible to imagine oneself as either more or less imagina- 
tive than, in fact, one is. A man whose every thought was 
commonplace could never know this to be the case. 

I cannot help believing that my thoughts and acts are my 
own, not inherited reflexes and prejudices. The most I can 
say is; “Father taught me such-and-such and I agree with 
him.” My prejudices must be right because, if I knew them 
to be wrong, I could no longer hold them. 

Subjectively, my emerience of life is one of having to make 
a series of choices between given alternatives and it is this 
experience of doubt, indecision, temptation, that seems more 
important and memorable than the actions I take. Further, 
if I make a choice which I consider the wrong one, I can 
never believe, however strong the temptation to make it, that 
it was inevitable, that I could not and should not have made 

The Well of Narcissus 

98 ] 

the opposite choice. But when I look at others, I cannot see 
them making choices; I can only see what they actually do 
and, if I know them well, it is rarely that I am surprised, 
that I could not have predicted, given his character and 
upbringing, how so-and-so would behave. 

Compared with myself, that is, other people seem at once 
less free and stronger in character. No man, however tough 
he appears to his friends, can help portraying himself in his 
autobiography as a sensitive plant. 

To peek is always an unfriendly act, a theft of knowledge; 
we all know this and cannot peek without feeling guilty. As 
compensation we demand that what we discover by peeking 
shall be surprising. If I peer through the keyhole of a bishop’s 
study and find him saying his prayers, the “idleness” of my 
curiosity is at once rebuked, but if I catch him making love 
to the parlor-maid I can persuade myself that my curiosity 
has really achieved something. 

In the same way, the private papers of an author must, 
if they are to satisfy the public, be twice as unexpected and 
shocking as his published books. 

Private letters, entries in journals, etc., fall into two classes, 
those in which the writer is in control of his situation — ^what 
he writes about is what he chooses to write — and those in 
which the situation dictates what he writes. The terms per- 
sonal and impersonal are here ambiguous: the first class is 
impersonal in so far as the writer is looking at himself in 
the world as if at a third person, but personal in so far as it 
is his personal act so to look — the signature to the letter is 
really his and he is responsible for its contents. Vice versa, 
the second class is personal in that the writer is identical with 
what he writes, but impersonal in that it is the situation, not 
he, which enforces that identity. 

The second class are what journalists call “human docu- 
ments” and should be published, if at all, anonymously. 

Rejoice with those that do rejoice. Certainly. But weep with 
them that weep? What good does that do? It is the decent 

Hie et Ille 

[ 99 

side of us, not our hardness of heart, that is hor^ and em- 
barrassed at having to listen to the woes of others because, 
as a rule, we can do nothing to alleviate them. To be curious 
about suflFering which we cannot alleviate — ^and the sufferings 
of the dead are all beyond our aid — ^is Schadenfreude and 
nothing else. 

Literary confessors are contemptible, like beggars who exhibit 
their sores for money, but not so contemptible as the public 
that buys their books. 

One ceases to he a child when one reedizes that telling one’s 
trouble does not make it any better, (caesare pavese.) 
Exaedy. Not even telling it to oneself. Most of us have known 
shameful moments when we blubbered, beat the wall with 
our fists, cursed the power which made us and the world, and 
wished that we were dead or that someone else was. But at 
such times, the I of the sufferer should have the tact and 
decency to look the other way. 

Our sufferings and weaknesses, in so far as they are personal, 
our sufferings, our weaknesses, are of no literary interest what- 
soever. They are only interesting in so far as we can see them 
as typical of the human condition. A suffering, a weakness, 
which cannot be expressed as an aphorism should not be 

The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to confes- 
sion to a priest: be brief, be blunt, be gone. Be brief, be blunt, 
forget. The scrupuland is a nasty specimen. 

If we were suddenly to become disembodied spirits, a few 
might behave better than before, but most of us would behave 
very much worse. 

The Body is a bom Aristotelian, its guiding principle, the 
Golden Mean. The most "fleshly” of the sins are not Gluttony 
and Lust, but Sloth and Cowardice: on the other hand, with- 

100 ] The Well of Narcissus 

out a body, we could neither conceive of nor practice the 
virtue of Prudence. 

You taught me language and my profit on’t Is, I know how to 
curse. In the debate between the Body and Soul, if the 
former could present its own case objectively, it would always 
win. As it is, it can only protest the Soul’s misstatement of its 
case by subjective acts of rebellion, coughs, belches, constipa- 
tion, etc., which always put it in the wrong. 

All bodies have the same vocabulary of physical symptoms to 
select from, but the way in which they use it varies from one 
body to another: in some, the style of bodily behavior is banal, 
in some highly mannered, in some vague, in some precise, and, 
occasionally, to his bewilderment, a physician encounters one 
which is really witty. 

Anxiety affects the Body and the Mind in different ways: it 
makes the former develop compulsions, a concentration on 
certain actions to the exclusion of others; it makes the latter 
surrender to daydreaming, a lack of concentration on any 
thought in particular. 

In a state of panic, a man runs round in circles by himself. 
In a state of joy, he links hands with others and they dance 
round in a circle together. 

In the judgment of my nose, some of my neighbors are bad, 
but none is my inferior. 

The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar, and is shocked 
by the unexpected: the eye, on the other hand, tends to be 
impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition. Thus, 
the average listener prefers concerts confined to works by old 
masters and it is only the highbrow who is willing to listen 
to new works, but the average reader wants the latest book 
and it is the classics of the past which are left to the high- 

Similarly, so long as a child has to be read to or told stories, 
he insists on the same tale being retold again and again, but. 

Hie et lUe 

I 101 

once he has learned to read for himself, he rarely reads die 
same book twice. 

As seen reflected in a mirror, a room or a landscape ^ems 
more solidly there in space than when looked at direedy. In 
that purely visual world nothing can be hailed, moved, 
smashed, or eaten, and it is only the observer himself who, 
by shifting his position or closing his eyes, can change. 

From the height of 10,000 feet, the earth appears to the 
human eye as it appears to the eye of the camera; that is to 
say, all history is reduced to nature. This has the salutary 
effect of making historical evils, like national divisions and 
political hatreds, seem absurd. I look down from an airplane 
upon a stretch of land which is obviously continuous. That, 
across it, marked by a tiny ridge or river or even by no topo- 
graphical sign whatever, there should run a frontier, and that 
die human beings living on one side should hate or refuse 
to trade with or be forbidden to visit those on the other side, 
is instantaneously revealed to me as ridiculous. Unfortunately, 
I cannot have this revelation without simultaneously having 
the illusion that there are no historical values either. From the 
same height I cannot distinguish between an outcrop of rock 
and a Gothic cathedral, or between a happy family playing 
in a backyard and a flock of sheep, so that I am unable to 
feel any difference between dropping a bomb upon one or 
the other. If the effect of distance upon the observed and the 
observer were mutual, so that, as the objects on the ground 
shrank in size and lost their uniqueness, the observer in the 
airplane felt himself shrinking and becoming more and more 
generalized, we should either give up fl)dng as too painful or 
create a heaven on earth. 

Those who accuse the movies of having a deleterious rntwral 
effect may well be right but not for the reasons they usually 
give. It is not what movies are about — gangsters or adultery 
— ^which does the damage, but the naturalistic nature of the 
medium itself which encourages a fantastic conception of 
time. In all narrative art, the narration of the action takes 

The Well of Narcissus 

102 ] 

less time than it would in real life, but in the epic or the 
drama or the novel, the artistic conventions are so obvious 
that a confusion of art with life is impossible. Suppose that 
there is a scene in a play in which a man woos a woman; 
this may take forty minutes by the clock to play, but the 
audience will have the sense of having watched a scene which 
really took, let us say, two hours. 

The absolute naturalism of the camera destroys this sense 
and encourages the audience to imagine that, in real life as 
on the screen, the process of wooing takes forty minutes. 

When he grows impatient, the movie addict does not cry 
“Hurry!” he cries “Cut!” 

A daydream is a meal at which images are eaten. Some of us 
are gourmets, some gourmands, and a good many take their 
images precooked out of a can and swallow them down whole, 
absent-mindedly and with little relish. 

Even if it be true that our primary interest is in sexual objects 
only, and that all our later interests are symbolic transferences, 
we could never make such a transference if the new objects 
of interest did not have a real value of their own. If all round 
hills were suddenly to turn into breasts, all caves into wombs, 
all towers into phalloi, we should not be pleased or even 
shocked: we should be bored. 

Between the ages of seven and twelve my fantasy life was 
centered around lead mines and I spent many hours imagin- 
ing in the minutest detail the Platonic Idea of all lead mines. 
In planning its concentrating mill, I ran into difficulty: I 
had to choose between two t)7pes of a certain machine for 
separating the slimes. One I found more “beautiful” but the 
other was, I knew from my reading, the more efficient. My 
feeling at the time, I remember very clearly, was that I was 
confronted by a moral choice and that it was my duty to 
choose the second. 

Like all polemical movements, existentialism is one-sided. In 
their laudable protest against systematic philosophers, like 
Hegel or Marx, who would reduce all individual existence to 

Hie et llle 

[ 103 

general processes, the existentialists have invented an equally 
imaginary anthropology from which all elements, dike man’s 
physical nature, or his reason, about which general statements 
can be made, are excluded. 

A task for an existentialist theologian: to preach a sermon 
on the topic The Slee'p of Christ. 

One of the most horrible, yet most important, discoveries of 
our age has been that, if you really wish to destroy a person 
and turn him into an automaton, the surest method is not 
physical torture, in the strict sense, but simply to keep him 
awake, i.e., in an existential relation to life without inter- 

All the existentialist descriptions of choice, like Pascal’s wager 
or Kierkegaard’s leap, are interesting as dramatic literature, but 
are they true? When I look back at the three or four choices in 
my life which have been decisive, I find that, at the time I 
made them, I had very little sense of the seriousness of what 
I was doing and only later did I discover that what had 
then seemed an unimportant brook was, in fact, a Rubicon. 

For this I am very thankful since, had I been fully aware 
of the risk I was taking, I should never have dared take such 
a step. 

In a reflective and anxious age, it is surely better, pedagog- 
ically, to minimize rather than to exaggerate the risks involved 
in a choice, just as one encourages a boy to swim who is afraid 
of the water by telling him that nothing can happen. 


Under the stress of emotion, animals and children “make” 
faces, but they do not have one. 

So much countenance and so little face, (henry james.) 
Every European visitor to the United States is struck by the 
comparative rarity of what he would call a face, by the fre- 
quency of men and women who look like elderly babies. If he 
stays in the States for any length of time, he will learn that 

The Well of Narcissus 

104 ] 

this cannot be put down to a lack o£ sensibility — the Amer- 
ican feels the joys and sufferings of human life as keenly as 
anybody else. The only plausible explanation I can find lies 
in his different attitude to the past. To have a face, in the 
European sense of the word, it would seem that one must not 
only enjoy and suffer but also desire to preserve the memory 
of even the most humiliating and unpleasant experiences of 
the past. 

More than any other people, perhaps, the Americans obey 
the scriptural injunction: “Let the dead bury their dead.” 

When I consider others I can easily believe that their bodies 
express their personalities and that the two are inseparable. 
But it is impossible for me not to feel that my body is other 
than I, that I inhabit it like a house, and that my face is a 
mask which, with or without my consent, conceals my real 
nature from others. 

It is impossible consciously to approach a mirror without com- 
posing or “making” a special face, and if we catch sight of our 
reflection unawares we rarely recognize ourselves. I cannot 
read my face in the mirror because I am already obvious to 

The image of myself which I try to create in my own mind 
in order that I may love myself is very different from the image 
which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they 
may love me. 

Most faces are asymmetric, i.e., one side is happy, the other 
sad, one self-confident, the other diffident, etc. But cutting up 
photographs it is possible to make two very different portraits, 
one from the two left sides, the other from the two rights. If 
these be now shown to the subject and to his friends, almost 
invariably the one which the subject prefers will be the one 
his friends dislike. 

We can imagine loving what we do not love a great deal more 
easily than we can imagine fearing what we do not fear. I can 
sympathize with a man who has a passion for collecting 

Hie et llle 

[ 105 

stamps, but if he is afraid of mice there is a gulf between us. 
On the other hand, if he is unafraid of spiders, of which I am 
terrified, I admire him as superior but I do not feel that he is 
a stranger. Between friends differences in taste or opinion are 
irritating in direct proportion to their triviality. If my friend 
takes up Vedanta, I can accept it, but if he prefers his steak 
well done, I feel it to be a treachery. 

When one talks to another, one is more conscious of him as a 
listener to the conversation than of oneself. But the moment 
one writes anything, be it only a note to pass down the table, 
one is more conscious of oneself as a reader than of the in- 
tended recipient. 

Hence we cannot be as false in writing as we can in speak- 
ing, nor as true. The written word can neither conceal nor 
reveal so much as the spoken. 

Two card players. A is a good loser when, holding good cards, 
he makes a fatal error, but a bad loser when he is dealt cards 
with which it is impossible to win. With B it is the other way 
round; he cheerfully resigns himself to defeat if his hand is 
poor, but becomes furious if defeat is his own fault. 

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them con- 
tinue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical 
barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of 

But if the seed of a genuine disinterested love, which is 
often present, is ever to develop, it is essential that we pretend 
to ourselves and to others that it is stronger and more devel- 
oped than it is, that we are less selfish than we are. Hence the 
social havoc wrought by the paranoid to whom the thought of 
indifference is so intolerable that he divides others into two 
classes, those who love him for himself alone and those who 
hate him for the same reason. 

Do a paranoid a favor, like paying his hotel bill in a foreign 
city when his monthly check has not yet arrived, and he will 
take this as an expression of personal affection — the thought 
that you might have done it from a general sense of duty 

The Well of Narcissus 

io6 ] 

towards a fellow countryman in distress will never occur to 
him. So back he comes for more until your patience is ex- 
hausted, there is a row, and he departs convinced that you are 
his personal enemy. In this he is right to the extent that it is 
difficult not to hate a person who reveals to you so clearly how 
little you love others. 

Two cyclic madmen. In his elated phase, A feels: “I am God. 
The universe is full of gods. I adore all and am adored by all.” 
B feels: “The universe is only a thing. I am happily free 
from all bonds of attachment to it.” In the corresponding de- 
pressed phase, A feels: “I am a devil. The universe is full of 
devils. I hate all and am hated by all.” B feels: “I am only a 
thing to the universe which takes no interest in me.” This 
difference is reflected in their behavior. When elated A does 
not wash and even revels in dirt because all things are holy. 
He runs after women, after whores in particular whom he 
intends to save through Love. But B in this mood takes a 
fastidious pride in his physical cleanliness as a mark of his 
superiority and is chaste for the same reason. When depressed 
A begins to wash obsessively to cleanse himself from guilt and 
feels a morbid horror of all sex, B now neglects his appearance 
because “nobody cares how I look,” and tries to be a Don Juan 
seducer in an attempt to compel life to take an interest in him. 

A’s God — Zeus-Jehovah: B’s God — ^The Unmoved Mover. 


Am I not thine ass, wpon which thou hast ridden 
ever since I was thine unto this day? 

numbers: xxii, 30 

Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst thou not agree 
with me for a -penny? 



The relation between Master and Servant is not given by 
nature or fate but comes into being through an act of conscious 
volition. Nor is it erotic; an erotic relationship, e.g., between 
man and wife or parent and child, comes into being in order 
to satisfy needs which are, in part, given by nature; the needs 
which are satisfied by a master-servant relationship are purely 
social and historical. By this definition, a wet nurse is not a 
servant, a cook may be. Thirdly, it is contractual. A contractual 
relationship comes into being through the free decision of both 
parties, a double commitment. The liberty of decision need 
not be, and indeed very rarely is, equal on both sides, but the 
weaker party must possess some degree of sovereignty. Thus, 
a slave is not a servant because he has no sovereignty what- 

io8 ] The Well of Narcissus 

soever; he cannot even say, “I would rather starve than work 
for you.” A contractual relationship not only involves double 
sovereignty, it is also asymmetric; what the master contributes, 
e.g., shelter, food and wages, and what the servant contributes, 
e.g., looking after the master’s clothes and house, are qualita- 
tively different and there is no objective standard by which one 
can decide whether the one is or is not equivalent to the other. 
A contract, therefore, differs from a law. In law all sovereignty 
lies with the law or with those who impose it and the in- 
dividual has no sovereignty. Even in a democracy where 
sovereignty is said to reside in the people, it is as one of the 
people that each citizen has a share in that, not as an individ- 
ual. Further, the relationship of all individuals to a law is 
symmetric; it commands or prohibits the same thing to all who 
come under it. Of any law one can ask the aesthetic question, 
“Is it enforceable?” and the ethical question, “Is it just?” An 
individual has the aesthetic right to break the law if he is 
powerful enough to do so with impunity, and it may be his 
ethical duty to break it if his conscience tells him that the 
law is unjust. Of a contract, on the other hand, one can only 
ask the historical question, “Did both parties pledge their 
word do it?” Its justice or its enforceability are secondary to the 
historical fact of mutual personal commitment. A contract can 
only be broken or changed by the mutual consent of both 
parties. It will be my ethical duty to insist on changing a con- 
tract when my conscience tells me it is unfair only if I am in 
the advantageous position; if I am in the weaker position I 
have a right to propose a change but no right to insist on one. 

When the false oracle has informed Don Quixote that Dul- 
cinea can only be disenchanted if Sancho Panza will receive 
several thousand lashes, the latter agrees to receive them on 
condition that he inflict them himself and in his own good 
time. One night Don Quixote becomes so impatient for the 
release of his love that he attempts to become the whipper, at 
which point Sancho Panza knocks his master down. 

DON QUIXOTE ; So you would rebel against your lord and 
master, would you, and dare to raise your hand 
against the one who feeds you. 

Balaam and His Ass [ 109 

SANCHo: I neither make nor unmake a king, hut am 
simply standing up for myself, for I am my own 

Similarly, when Mr. Pickwick, on entering the Debtors’ 
Prison, attempts to dismiss Sam Weller because it would be 
unjust to the latter to expect him to accompany his master, 
Sam Weller refuses to accept dismissal and arranges to get sent 
to jail himself. 

Lastly, the master-servant relationship is between real per- 
sons. Thus we do not call the employees of a factory or a store 
servants because the factory and the store are corporate, i.e., 
fictitious, persons. 


Who is there? 


Who is 1 ? 


And that is the awakening — the Thou and the I. 


Man is a creature who is capable of entering into Thou- 
Thou relationships with God and with his neighbors because 
he has a Thou-Thou relationship to himself. Tnere are other 
social animals who have signal codes, e.g., bees have signals for 
informing each other about the whereabouts and distance of 
flowers, but only man has a language by means of which he 
can disclose himself to his neighbor, which he could not do 
and could not want to do if he did not first possess the capacity 
and the need to disclose himself to himself. The communica- 
tion of mere objective fact only requires monologue and for 
monologue a language is not necessary, only a code. But sub- 
jective communication demands dialogue and dialogue de- 
mands a real language. 

A capacity for self-disclosure implies an equal capacity for 
self-concealment. Of an animal it is equally true to say that it 

The Well of Narcissus 

no ] 

is incapable of telling us what it really feels, and that it is 
incapable of hiding its feelings. A man can do both. For the 
animal motto is that of the trolls in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt — “To 
thyself be enough” — ^while the human motto is, “To thyself 
by true.” Peer is perfectly willing, if it is convenient, to swear 
that the cow he sees is a beautiful young lady, but when the 
Troll-King suggests an operation which will take away from 
Peer the power of distinguishing between truth and falsehood 
so that if he wishes that a cow were a beautiful girl, the cow 
immediately appears to him as such. Peer revolts. 

To present artistically a human personality in its full 
depth, its inner dialectic, its self-disclosure and self-conceal- 
ment, through the medium of a single character is almost im- 
possible. The convention of the soliloquy attempts to get 
around the difficulty but it suffers from the disadvantage of 
being a convention; it presents, that is, what is really a dialogue 
in the form of a monologue. When Hamlet soliloquizes, we 
hear a single voice which is supposed to be addressed to him- 
self but, in fact, is heard as addressed to us, the audience, 
so that we suspect that he is not disclosing to himself 
what he conceals from others, but only disclosing to us what 
he thinks it is good we should know, and at the same 
time concealing from us what he does not choose to tell us. 

A dialogue requires two voices, but, if it is the inner dia- 
logue of human personality that is to be expressed artistically, 
the two characters employed to express it and the relationship 
between them must be of a special kind. The pair must in 
certain respects be similar, i.e., they must be of the same sex, 
and in others, physical and temperamental, polar opposites — 
identical twins will not do because they inevitably raise the 
question, “Which is the real one?” — and they must be in- 
separable, i.e., the relationship between them must be of a 
kind which is not affected by the passage of time or the fluctu- 
ations of mood and passion, and which makes it plausible that 
wherever one of them is, whatever he is doing, the other 
should be there too. There is only one relationship which 
satisfies all these conditions, that between master and personal 
servant. It might be objected at this point that the Ego-self 

Bciaani and His Ass [ 1 1 1 

relationship is given while the master-servant relationship, as 
defined above, is contractual. The objection would fee vaHd if 
man, like all other finite things, had only the proto-history of 
coming into being and then merely sustaining that being. But 
man has a real history; having come into being, he has then 
through his choices to become what he is not yet, and this he 
cannot do unless he first chooses himself as he is now with all 
his finite limitations. To reach “the age of consent” means to 
arrive at the point where the “given” Ego-self relationship is 
changed into a contractual one. Suicide is a breach of contract. 


CRICHTON: There must always he a master and 
servants in all civilized communities, for it 
is natural, and whatever is natural is right. 

LORD LOAMSHiRE: It's Very unnatural for me to 
stand here and allow you to talk such non- 

CRICHTON: Yes, my lord, it is. That is what I 
have been striving to point out to your lord- 

— j. M. BARRIE, The Admirable Crichton 

Defined abstractly, a master is one who gives orders and a 
servant is one who obeys orders. This characteristic makes the 
master-servant relationship peculiarly suitable as an expression 
of the inner life, so much of which is carried on in imperatives. 
If a large lady carelessly, but not intentionally, treads on my 
corn during a subway rush hour, what goes on in my mind 
can be expressed dramatically as follows: 

SELF: (in whom the physical sensation of pain has be- 
come the mental passion of anger): 

“Care for my anger! Do something about it!” 

COGNITIVE ego: “You are angry because of the pain 
caused by this large lady who, carelessly but not in- 
tentionally, has trodden on your com. If you decide 

The Well of Narcissus 

II2 ] 

to relieve your feelings, you can give her a sharp 
kick on the ankle without being noticed.” 
self: “Kick her.” 

super-ego: (to simplify matters, let us pretend that 
super-ego and conscience are identical, which they 
are not): 

“Unintentional wrongs must not be avenged. 
Ladies must not be kicked. Control your anger!” 
lady: (noticing what she has done): 

“I beg your pardon! I hope I didn’t hurt you.” 
self: “Kick her!” 

super-ego: “Smile! Say ‘Not at all, Madam.’ ” 
VOLITIONAL ego: (to the appropriate voluntary mus- 

either “Kick her!” 

or “Smile! Say ‘Not at all, Madam!’ ” 

Of my five “characters,” only one, my cognitive ego, really 
employs the indicative mood. Of the others, my self and my 
super-ego cannot, either of them, be a servant. Each is a master 
who is either obeyed or disobeyed. Neither can take orders. 
My body, on the other hand (or rather its “voluntary mus- 
cles”), can do nothing but what it is told; it can never be a 
master, nor even a servant, only a slave. While my volitional 
ego is always both, a servant in relation to either my self or my 
super-ego and a master in relation to my body. 

The “demands” of reason are not imperatives because, al- 
though it is possible not to listen to them and to forget them, 
as long as we listen and remember, it is impossible to disobey 
them, and a true imperative always implies the possibility of 
either obeying or disobeying. In so far as we listen to reason, 
we are its slaves, not its servants. 

I care for nobody, no, not 1 
And nobody cares for me. 

— The Miller of Dee 

Bdlae^ and His Ass 

I 113 

But my five wits nor my five senses can 
Dissuade one foolish heart from setiHng thke, 

Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man 
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.^ 


Because of its double role the volitional ego has two wishes 
which, since the Fall, instead of being dialectically related, 
have become contradictory opposites. On the one hand it 
wishes to he free of all demands made upon it by the self or 
the conscience or the outer world. As Kierkegaard wrote: 

If I had a humble spirit in my service, who, when I 
asked for a glass of water, brought me the world’s cosdiest 
wines blended in a chalice, I should dismiss him, in order 
to teach him that pleasure consists not in what I enjoy, 
but in having my own way. 

When Biron, the hero of Love’s Labour’s Lost, who has hith- 
erto been free of passion, finds himself falling in love, he is 

This senior junior, giant dWarf, Dan Cupid, 

Sole emperator and great general 
Of trotting paritors (Oh my little heart) 

And 1 to he a corporal of his field 

And wear his colours like a tumbler’s hoop. 

On the other hand, the same ego wishes to be important, to 
find its existence meaningful, to have a telos, and this telos it 
can only find in something or someone outside itself. To have 
a telos is to have something to obey, to be the servant of. Thus 
all lovers instinctively use the master-servant metaphor. 

MIRANDA: To be your fellow 

You may deny me; but I’ll be your servant. 
Whether you will or no. 

FERDINAND: My Mistress, dearest. 

And I thus humble ever. 

My husband then? 


The WeU of Narcissus 

J14 1 

FERDINAND; Aye, with a heart as willing 
As bondage e’er of freedom. 

And so, with calculation, speaks every seducer. 

BERTRAM: I prithee do not strive against my vows. 

I was compelled to her, but I love thee 
By love's own sweet constraint, and will for 

Do thee all rights of service. 

DIANA: Ay, so you serve us 

Till we serve you. 

To he loved, to be the telos of another, can contribute to the 
ego’s sense of importance, provided that it feels that such 
giving of love is a free act on the part of the other, that the 
other is not a slave of his or her passion. In practice, unfortu- 
nately, if there is an erotic element present as distinct from 
philia, most people find it hard to believe that another’s love 
for them is free and not a compulsion, unless they happen to 
reciprocate it. 

Had man not fallen, the wish of his ego for freedom would 
be simply a wish not to find its telos in a false or inferior good, 
and its wish for a telos simply a longing for the true good, and 
both wishes would be granted. In his fallen state, he oscillates 
between a wish for absolute autonomy, to be as God, and a 
wish for an idol who will take over the whole responsibility 
for his existence, to be an irresponsible slave. The consequence 
of indulging the first is a sense of loneliness and lack of mean- 
ing; the consequence of indulging the second, a masochistic 
insistence on being made to suffer. John falls in love with 
Anne who returns his love, is always faithful and anxious to 
please. Proud and self-satisfied, he thinks of my Anne, pres- 
endy of my wife and finally of my well-being. Anne as a real 
other has ceased to exist for him. He does not suffer in any 
way that he can put his finger on, nevertheless he begins to 
feel bored and lonely. 

George falls in love with Alice who does not return his love, 
is unfaithful and treats him badly. To George she remains 

Bdacm and His Ass 

i ”5 

Alice, cruel but real. He suffers but he is not lonel^ or bored, 
for his suffering is the proof that another exists to cause it. 

The futility of trying to combine both wishes into one, of 
trying, that is, to have a telos, but to find it within oneself not 
without, is expressed in the myth of Narcissus. Narcissus falls 
in love with his reflection; he wishes to become its servant, but 
instead his reflection insists upon being his slave. 


Das verfluchte Hier 
— GOETHE, Faust 

Goethe’s Faust is full of great poetry and wise sayings but it 
is not dramatically exciting; like a variety show, it gives us a 
succession of scenes interesting in themselves but without a 
real continuity; one could remove a scene or add a new one 
without causing any radical change in the play. Further, once 
the Marguerite episode is over, it is surprising how little Faust 
himself actually does. Mephisto creates a new situation and 
Faust tells us what he feels about it. I can well imagine that 
every actor would like to play Mephisto, who is always enter- 
taining, but the actor who plays Faust has to put up with 
being ignored whenever Mephisto is on stage. Moreover, from 
a histrionic point of view, is there ever any reason why Faust 
should move instead of standing still and just delivering his 
lines? Is not any movement the actor may think up arbitrary? 

These defects are not, of course, due to any lack of dramatic 
talent in Goethe but to the nature of the Faust myth itself, for 
the story of Faust is precisely the story of a man who refuses 
to be anyone and only wishes to become someone else. Once 
he has summoned Mephisto, the manifestation of possibility 
without actuality, there is nothing left for Faust to represent 
but the passive consciousness of possibilities. When the Spirit 
of Fire appears to Faust, it says: 

Du gleichst dem Geist, den du hegreifst, 

Nicht mir 

The Well of Narcissus 

ii6 ] 

and in an ideal production, Faust and Mephisto should be 
played by identical twins. 

Near the beginning of the play Faust describes bis condi- 

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust 
Die eine will sich von der andern trennen; 

Die eine halt, in derber Liebeslust 

Sich an die Welt mit klammemden Organen; 

Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust 
Zu den Gefdden hoher Ahnen. 

This has nothing to do, though he may think it has, with the 
conflict between pleasure and goodness, the kingdom of this 
world and the kingdom of Heaven. Faust’s Welt is the im- 
mediate actual moment, the actual concrete world now, and 
his hohe Ahnen the same world seen by memory and imag- 
ination as possible, as what might have been once and may be 
yet. All value belongs to possibility, the actual here and now 
is valueless, or rather the value it has is the feeling of discon- 
tent it provokes. When Faust signs his contract with Mephisto, 
the latter says: 

Ich will mich hier zu deinem Dienst verbinden, 

Auf deinen Wink nicht rasten and nicht ruhn; 
wenn wir uns driiben wieder finden 
So sollst du mir das Gleiche tun 

to which Faust replies airily : 

Das Driiben kann mich wenig kiimmern 
Schldgst du erst diese Welt zu Triimmern, 

Die andre mag danach entstehen 

because he does not believe that Das Driiben, the exhaustion 
of all possibilities, can ever be reached — as, indeed, in the play 
it never is. Faust escapes Mephisto’s clutches because he is 
careful to deflne the contentment of his last moment in terms 
of anticipation: 

Balcum and His Ass [117 

Im Vorgefiihl von solchem hohen Gliick 
Geniess ich jezt den hochsten Angenblick. 

But, though Faust is not damned, it would be nonsense to say 
that he is saved. The angels bearing him to Heaven dekribe 
him as being in the pupa stage, and to such a condition Judg- 
ment has no meaning. 

Mephisto describes himself as: 

ein Teil des Teils, der Anfangs alles war, 

Ein Teil der Finsternis, die sick das Licht gebar 

as, that is to say, a manifestation of the rejection of all finite- 
ness, the desire for existence without the limitation of essence. 
To the spirit that rejects any actuality, the idea must be the 
Abgrund, the abyss of infinite potentiality, and all creation 
must be hateful to it. So Valery’s serpent cries out against 

ll se fit Celui qui dissipe 
En consequences son Principe, 

En etoiles son Unite. 

Mephisto describes himself as: 

ein T eil von jener Kraft, 

Die stets das Bose will und stets das Gute schaft, 

but it is hard to see what good or evil he does to Faust. 
Through his agency or his suggestion, Faust may do a good 
deal of harm to others, but Faust himself is completely un- 
affected by his acts. He passively allows Mephisto to entertain 
him and is no more changed in character by these entertain- 
ments than we are by watching the play. 

Faust may talk a great deal about the moral dangers of con- 
tent and sloth, but the truth is that his discontent is not a dis- 
content with himself but a terror of being bored. What Faust 
is totally lacking in is a sacramental sense,* a sense that the 

Faust holds any theological position, it is pantheist. The pantheist 
believes that the universe is numinous as-a-whole. But a sacramental simi 
is always some particular aspect of the finite, this thing, this act, not Uie 

The Well of Narcissus 

ii8 ] 

finite can be a sign for the infinite, that the secular can he 
sanctified; one cannot imagine him saying with George Her- 

A servant with this clause 
Makes drudgery divine; 

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws 
Makes that and the action fine. 

In this lack Faust is a typical modem figure. In earlier ages 
men have been tempted to think that the finite was not a sign 
for the holy but the holy itself, and fell therefore into 
idolatry and magic. The form which the Devil assumed in 
such periods, therefore, was always finite; he appeared as the 
manifestation of some specific temptation, as a beautiful 
woman, a bag of gold, etc. In our age there are no idols in 
the strict sense because we tire of one so quickly and take 
up another that the word cannot apply. Our real, because 
permanent, idolatry is an idolatry of possibility. And in such 
an age the Devil appears in the form of Mephisto, in the 
form, that is, of an actor. The point about an actor is that 
he has no name of his own, for his name is Legion. One 
might say that our age recognized its nature on the day when 
Henry Irving was knighted. 


Voglio far il gentiluomo 
E non voglio fiu servir. 

— ^DA PONTE, Don Giovanni 

Dein Werk! O thorige Magd 

— WAGNER, Tristan and Isolde 

The man who refuses to be the servant of any telos can only 
be directly represented, like the Miller of Dee, lyrically. He 

finite-in-general, and it is valid for this person, this social group, this his- 
torical epoch, not for humanity-in-general. Pansacramentalism is self- 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ 1 19 

can sing his rapture of freedom and indifference, but after 
that there is nothing for him to do but be quiet, in a drama 
he can only be represented indirectly as a man with a telos, 
indeed a monomania, but of such a kind that it is cleat that 
it is an arbitrary choice; nothing in his nature and circum- 
stances imposes it on him or biases him toward it. Such is 
Don Giovanni. The telos he chooses is to seduce, to “know” 
every woman in the world. Leporello says of him: 

Non si picca, se sia ricca 

Se sia brutta, se sia hella, 

Perchi forti la gonnella 

A sensual libertine, like the Duke in Rigoletto, cannot see a 
pretty girl, or a girl who is “his type” without trying to seduce 
her; but if a plain elderly woman like Donna Elvira passes 
by, he cries, “My God, what a dragon,” and quickly looks 
away. That is sensuality, and pains should be taken in a 
proauction to make it clear why the Duke should have fallen 
into this particular idolization of the finite rather than another. 
The Duke must appear to be the kind of man to whom all 
women will be attracted; he must be extremely good-looking, 
virile, rich, magnificent, a grand seigneur. 

Don Giovanni’s pleasure in seducing women is not sensual 
but arithmetical; his satisfaction lies in adding one more name 
to his list which is kept for him by Leporello. Everything 
possible, therefore, should be done to make him as incon- 
spicuous and anonymous in appearance as an FBI agent. 
If he is made handsome, then his attraction for women is a 
bias in his choice, and if he is made ugly, then the repulsion 
he arouses in women is a challenge. He should look so neutral 
that the audience realizes that, so far as any finite motive is 
concerned, he might just as well have chosen to collect stamps. 
The Duke does not need a servant because there is no con- 
tradiction involved in sensuali^ or indeed in any idolatry of 
the finite. The idol and the idolater between them can say all 
there is to say. The Duke is the master of his ladies and the 
slave of his sensuality. Any given form of idolatry of the finite 
is lacking in contradiction because such idolatry is itself 

The Well of Narcissus 

120 ] 

finite. Whenever we find one idol we find others, we find 
polytheism. We do not have to be told so to know that there 
are times when the Duke is too tired or too hungry to look 
at a pretty girl. For Don Giovanni there are no such times, and 
it is only in conjunction with his servant, as Giovanni- 
Leporello, that he can be understood. 

Don Giovanni is as inconspicuous as a shadow, resolute 
and fearless in action; Leporello is comically substantial like 
FalstafF, irresolute and cowardly. When, in his opening aria, 
Leporello sings the words quoted at the head of this sec- 
tion, the audience laughs because it is obvious that he 
is lacking in all the qualities of character that a master should 
have. He is no Figaro. But by the end of the opera, one 
begins to suspect that the joke is much funnier than one had 
first thought. Has it not, in fact, been Leporello all along 
who was really the master and Don Giovanni really his 
servant? It is Leporello who keeps the list and if he lost it or 
forgot to keep it up-to-date or walked off with it, Don Giovanni 
would have no raison d’itre. It is significant that we never 
see Don Giovanni look at the list himself or show any 
pleasure in it; only Leporello does that: Don Giovanni 
merely reports the latest name to him. Perhaps it should have 
been Leporello who was carried down alive to hell by the 
Commendatore, leaving poor worn-out Giovanni to die in 
peace. Imagine a Leporello who, in real life, is a rabbity-look- 
ing, celibate, timid, stupendously learned professor, with the 
finest collection in the world, of, say, Trilobites, but in every 
aspect of life outside his field, completely incompetent. 
Brought up by a stern fundamentalist father (II Commenda- 
tore) he went to college with the intention of training for the 
ministry, but there he read Darwin and lost his faith. Will 
not his daydream version of his ideal self be someone very 
like Don Giovanni? 

It is fortunate for our understanding of the myth of Tristan 
and Isolde that Wagner should have chosen to write an opera 
about it, for the physical demands made by Wagnerian opera 
defend us, quite accidentally, from an illusion which we are 
likely to fall into when reading the medieval legend; the two 

Bahi^ and His Ass [ 121 

lovers, for whom nothing is of any value but each other, ap- 
pear on the stage, not as the handsomest 'of princes and the 
most beautiful of princesses, not as Tamino and Pamina, but 
as a Wagnerian tenor and soprano in all their corseted, hulk. 
When Tamino and Pamina fall mutually in love, we see 
that the instigating cause is the manly beauty of one and the 
womanly beauty of the other. Beauty is a finite quality which 
time will take away; this does not matter in the case of Tamino 
and Pamina because we know that their romantic passion for 
each other has only to be temporary, a natural but not serious 
preliminary to the serious unromantic love of man and wife. 
But the infinite romantic passion of Tristan and Isolde which 
has no past and no future outside itself cannot be generated 
by a finite quality; it can only be generated by finiteness-in- 
itself against which it protests with an infinite passion of 
rejection. Like Don Giovanni, Tristan and Isolde are purely 
mythical figures in that we never meet them in historical exist- 
ence: we meet promiscuous men like the Duke, but never a 
man who is absolutely indifferent to the physical qualities of 
the women he seduces; we meet romantically passionate en- 
gaged couples, but never a couple of whom we can say that 
their romantic passion will not and cannot change into mar- 
ried affection or decline into indifference. Just as we can 
say that Don Giovanni might have chosen to collect stamps 
instead of women, so we can say that Tristan and Isolde m^ht 
have fallen in love with two other people; they are so indiffer- 
ent to each other as persons with unique bodies and characters 
that they might just as well — and this is one significance of 
the love potion — have drawn each other’s names out of a hat. 
A lifelong romantic idolatry of a real person is possible and 
occurs in life provided that the romance is one-sided, that one 
party plays the Cruel Fair, e.g., Don Jos^ and Carmen. For 
any finite idolatry is by definition an asymmetric relation: my 
idol is that which I make responsible for my existence in order 
that I may have no responsibility for myself; if it turns round 
and demands responsibility from me it ceases to be an idol. 
Again, it is fortunate that the operatic medium makes it 
impossible for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to consummate 

122 ] The Well of Narcissus 

their love physically. Wagner may have intended, probably 
did intend, the love duet in the Second Act to stand for such 
a physical consummation, but what we actually see are two 
people singing of how much they desire each other, and con- 
summation remains something that is always about to happen 
but never does, and this, whatever Wagner intended, is cor- 
rect: their mutual idolatry is only possible because, while both 
assert their infinite willingness to give themselves to each 
other, in practice both play the Cruel Fair and withhold 
themselves. Were they to yield, they would know something 
about each other and their relation would change into a one- 
sided idolatry, a mutual affection or a mutual indifference. 
They do not yield because their passion is not for each other 
but for something they hope to obtain by means of each other. 
Nirvana, the primordial unity that made the mistake of 
begetting multiplicity, “der Finstemis die sich das Licht 

Just as Don Giovanni is inseparable from his servant Lep- 
orello, so Tristan and Isolde appear flanked by Brangaene and 
Kurvenal. It is Kurvenal’s mocking reference to Morold that 
makes Isolde so angry that she decides to poison Tristan and 
herself, in consequence of which Tristan and she are brought 
together; otherwise he would have kept his distance till they 
landed. It is Brangaene who substitutes the love potion for the 
death potion so that Tristan and Isolde are committed to each 
other not by their personal decisions but by an extraneous 
factor for which they are not responsible. It is Brangaene who 
tells King Mark about the love potion so that he is willing to 
forgive the lovers and let them join each other, but tells him 
too late for his decision to be of any practical help. And it is 
Kurvenal's leaving of his master to greet Isolde that gives 
Tristan the opportunity to cause his death by tearing off his 
bandages. Kurvenal obeys his friend like a slave who has no 
mind of his own. 

Den guten Marke 

dienst ich ihtn hold, 

wie worst du ihm treuer als Gold! 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ tzi 

Musst’ ich verrathen 

den edlen Herrn, 

wie betrogst du ihn da so gern 

Dir nickt eigen, 

einzig mein 

Tristan tells him, but then points out that Kurvenal has one 
freedom which he, Tristan, can never have. He is not in love. 

Nttr — was ich leide, 

dass — kannst du nicht leiden. 

As in the case of Don Giovanni and Leporello, one begins 
to wonder who are really master and mistress. Imagine a 
Kurv'enal and a Brangaene who in real life are an average 
respectable lower-middle-class couple (but with more children 
than is today usual), living in a dingy suburban house. He 
has a dingy white-collar job and has a hard time making 
both ends meet. She has no maid and is busy all day washing 
the diapers of the latest baby, mending the socks of older 
children, washing up, trying to keep the house decent, etc. 
She has lost any figure and looks she may once have had; he is 
going bald and acquiring a middle-aged spread. Their mar- 
riage, given their circumstances, is an average one; any 
romantic passion has long ago faded but, though they often 
get on each other’s nerves, they don’t passionately hate each 
other. A couple, that is, on whom the finite bears down with 
the fullest possible weight, or provides the fewest of its satis- 
factions. Now let them concoct their daydream of the ideal 
love and the ideal world, and something very like the passion 
of Tristan and Isolde will appear, and a world in which 
children, jobs, and food do not exist. His Boss will appear as 
King Mark, an old disreputable drinking crony of his as 
Morold, the scandal-mongering neighbors next door as Melot. 
They cannot, however, keep the sense of reality out of their 
dream and make everything end happily. They are dreamers 
but they are sane dreamers, and sanity demands that Tristan 
and Isolde be doomed. 

The Well of Narcissus 

124 ] 


The fool will stay 
And let the wise man fly. 

The knave turns fool who runs away, 

The fool, no knave perdy. 


According to Renaissance political theory, the King, as the 
earthly representative of Divine Justice, is above die law which 
he imposes on his subjects. For his subjects the law is a uni- 
versal, but the King who makes the law is an individual who 
cannot be subject to it, since the creator is superior to his 
creation — a poet, for instance, cannot be subordinate to his 
poem. In general, the Middle Ages had thought differently; 
they held that not even the King could violate Natural Law. 
In English history, the transition from one view to the other 
is marked by Henry the Eighth’s execution of Sir Thomas 
More who, as Lord Chancellor, was the voice of Natural Law 
and the keeper of the King’s Conscience. Both periods believed 
that, in some sense, the King was a divine representative, 
so that the political question, "Is the King obliged to obey 
his law?’’ is really the theological question, "Does God have 
to obey His own laws?’’ The answer given seems to me to 
depend upon what doctrine of God is held, Trinitarian or 
LFnitarian. If the former, then the Middle Ages were right, 
for it implies that obedience is a meaningful term when 
applied to God — the co-equal Son obeys the Father. If the 
latter, then the Renaissance was right, unless the sacramental 
theory of kingship is abandoned, in which case, of course, the 
problem does not arise.^ An absolute monarch is a repre- 
sentative of the deist God. The Renaissance King, then, is an 
individual, and the only individual, the superman, who is 
above the law, not subject to the universal. If he should 
do wrong, who can tell him so? Only an individual who, like 

* Or does it? In recent years we have seen the emergence, and not only 
in professedly totalitarian countries, of something very like a doctrine of 
the Divine lights of States, though the adjective would be indignantly 
denied by most of its exponents. 

Bdaam and His Ass 

[ 125 

himself, is not subject to the universal because he is as below 
the universal as the King is above it. The fool is such an 
individual because, being deficient in reason, subhuman, he 
has no contact with its demands. The fool is "simple,'^ i.e., 
he is not a madman. A madman is someone who was once a 
normal sane man but who, under the stress of emotion, has 
lost his reason. A fool is bom a fool and was never anything 
else; he is, as we say, “wanting,” and whereas a madman is 
presumed to feel emotions like normal men, indeed to feel 
them more strongly than the normal man, the fool is presumed 
to be without emotions. If, therefore, he should happen to utter 
a truth, it cannot be his utterance, for he cannot distingush 
between truth and falsehood, and he cannot have a personal 
motive for uttering what, without his knowing it, happens 
to be true, since motive implies emotion and the fool is pre- 
sumed to have none. It can only be the voice of God using 
him as His mouthpiece. God is as far above the superman- 
King, whose earthly representative he is, as the King is above 
ordinary mortals, so that the voice of God is a voice, the only 
one, which the King must admit that it is his duty to obey. 
Hence the only individual who can speak to the King with 
authority, not as a subject, is the fool. 

The position of the King’s Fool is not an easy one. It is 
obvious that God uses him as a mouthpiece only occasionally, 
for most of the time what he says is patently nonsense, the 
words of a fool. At all moments when he is not divinely in- 
spired but just a fool, he is subhuman, not a subject, but a 
slave, with no human rights, who may be whipped like an 
animal if he is a nuisance. On the occasions when he happens 
to speak the truth, he cannot, being a fool, say, “This time 
I am not speaking nonsense as I usually do, but the truth”; 
it rests with the King to admit the difference and, since truth 
is often unwelcome and hard to admit, it is not surprising 
that the fool’s life should be a rough one. 

fool: Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can 
teach thy fool to lie. 

LEAR: An you lie, sirrah, we’ll have you whipped. 

The Well of Narcissus 

126 ] 

fool: 1 marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. 
They’ll have me whipped for speaking true; thou’lt 
have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am 
whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any 
kind o’ thing than a fool; and yet, I would not be 
thee, nuncle. 

It was said above that the cognitive ego never uses the im- 
perative mood, always the indicative or the conditional: it 
does not say, “Do such-and-such!”; it says, “Such-and-such is 
the case. If you want such-and-such a result, you can obtain 
it by doing as follows. What you want to do, your emotive 
self can tell you, not I. What you ought to do, your super-ego 
can tell you, not I.” Nor can it compel the volitional ego to 
listen to it; the choice of listening or refusing to listen lies 
with the latter. 

Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out 

when Lady the brach may stand by the fire and stink. 

We are told that, after Cordelia’s departure for France after 
Lear’s first fatal folly, his first “mad” act, the fool started to 
pine away. After the Third Act, he mysteriously vanishes 
from the play, and when Lear appears without him, Lear is 
irremediably mad. At the very end, just before his death, 
Lear suddenly exclaims “And my poor fool is hanged!” and 
it is impossible for the audience to know if he is actually 
referring to the fool or suffering from aphasia and meaning 
to say Cordelia, whom we know to have been hanged. 

The fool, that is, seems to stand for Lear’s sense of reality 
which he rejects. Not for his conscience. The fool never speaks 
to him, as Kent does, in the name of morality. It was immoral 
of Lear to make the dowries of his daughters proportionate to 
their capacity to express their affection for their father, but not 
necessarily mad because he (and the audience) has no reason 
to suppose that Cordelia has any less talent for expressing 
affection than her sisters. Rationally, there is no reason that she 
should not have surpassed them. Her failure in the competi- 
tion is due to a moral refusal, not to a lack of talent. Lear’s 
reaction to Cordelia’s speech, on the other hand, is not immoral 

Balaani and His Ass 

[ 127 

but mad because he knows that, in &ct, Cordelia loves him 
and that Goneril and Regan do not. From that rabment on, 
his sanity is, so to speak, on the periphery of his being instead 
of at its center, and the dramatic manifestation of this shift is 
the appearance of the fool who stands outside him as a second 
figure and is devoted to Cordelia. As long as passion has not 
totally engulfed him, the fool can appear at his side, laboring 
"to outjest / His heart struck injuries.” There is still a chance, 
however faint, that he may realize the facts of his situation 
and be restored to sanity. Thus when Lear begins to address 
the furniture as if it were his daughters, the fool remarks: 

I cry you mercy. I took you for a joint-stool. 

In other words, there is still an element of theatre in Lear’s 
behavior, as a child vwll talk to inanimate objects as if they 
were people, while knowing that, in reality, they are not. But 
when this chance has passed and Lear has descended into mad- 
ness past recall, there is nothing for the fool to represent and 
he must disappear. 

Frequently the fool makes play with the words “knave” and 
"fool.” A knave is one who disobeys the imperatives of con- 
science; a fool is one who cannot hear or understand them. 
Though the cognitive ego is, morally, a "fool” because con- 
science speaks not to it but to the volitional ego, yet the im- 
perative of duty can never be in contradiction to the actual 
facts of the situation, as the imperative of passion can be and 
frequently is. The Socratic doctrine that to know the good is 
to will it, that sin is ignorance, is valid if by knowing one 
means listening to what one knows, and by ignorance, willful 
ignorance. If that is what one means, then, though not all 
fools are knaves, all knaves are fools. 

LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy? 

fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that 
thou wast bom with. 

KENT: This is not altogether fool, my lord. 

fool: No, faith, lords and great men will not let me. 

If I had a monopoly on’t; they would have part of it. 

The Well of Narcissus 

128 ] 

Ideally, in a stage production, Lear and the fool should be of 
the same physical type; they should both be athletic meso- 
morphs. TTie difference should he in their respective sizes. 
Lear should be as huge as possible, the fool as tiny. 


body; O who shall me deliver whole 

From bonds of this tyrannic soul? 

Which, stretcht ufright, imfcAes me so 
That mine own fredpice I go. . . . 

soul: What Magick could me thus confine 
Within another’s grief to pine? 

Where whatsoever it complain, 

1 feel, that cannot feel, the pain . . . 


VALENTINE: Belike, boy, then you are in love; 
for last morning you could not see to wipe 
my shoes. 

speed: True sir; I was in love with my bed. 1 
thank you, you swinged me for my love, 
which makes me the bolder to chide you for 

— SHAKESPEARE, Two Gentlemen of Verona 

The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, is a disquieting work. 
Like the other three comedies of his late period, Pericles, Cym- 
beline and The Winter’s Tale, it is concerned with a wrong 
done, repentance, penance and reconciliation; but, whereas 
the others all end in a blaze of forgiveness and love — “Par- 
don’s the word to all’’ — ^in The Tempest both the repentance 
of the guilty and the pardon of the injured seem more formal 
than real. Of the former, Alonso is the only one who seems 
genuinely sorry; the repentance of the rest, both the courtly 
characters, Antonio and Sebastian, and the low, Trinculo and 
Stephano, is more the prudent promise of the punished and 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ «9 

frightened, “I won’t do it again. It doesn't pay,” than any 
change of heart: and Prospero’s forgiving* is morfe the con- 
temptuous pardon of a man who knows that he has his enemies 
completely at his mercy than a heartfelt reconciliation. His 
attitude to all of them is expressed in his final words to Cali- 

as you look 

To have my pardon trim it handsomely. 

One must admire Prospero because of his talents and his 
strength; one cannot possibly like him. He has the coldness of 
someone who has come to the conclusion that human nature is 
not worth much, that human relations are, at their best, pretty 
sorry affairs. Even towards the innocent young lovers, Ferdi- 
nand and Miranda, and their “brave new world,” his attitude 
is one of mistrust so that he has to preach them a sermon on 
the dangers of anticipating their marriage vows. One might ex- 
cuse him if he included himself in his critical skepticism but 
he never does; it never occurs to him that he, too, might have 
erred and be in need of pardon. He says of Caliban: 

born devil on whose nature 
Nurture can never stick, on whom my pains. 
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost 

but Shakespeare has written Caliban’s part in such a way that, 
while we have to admit that Caliban is Wh brutal and corrupt, 
a “lying slave” who can be prevented from doing mischief 
only “by stripes not kindness,” we cannot help feeling that 
Prospero is largely responsible for his corruption, and that, in 
the debate between them, Caliban has the best of the argu- 

Before Prospero’s arrival, Caliban had the island to himself, 
living there in a state of savage innocence. Prospero attempts 
to educate him, in return for which Caliban shows him all the 

2 ualities of the isle. The experiment is brought to a halt when 
Caliban tries to rape Miranda, and Prospero abandons any 
hope of educating him further. He does not, however, sever 
their relation and turn Caliban back to the forest; he changes 

The Well of Narcissus 

130 ] 

its nature and, instead of trying to treat Caliban as a son, mak^ 
him a slave whom he rules by fear. This relation is profitable 
to Prospero: 

as it is 

We cannot miss him. He does make our fire. 

Fetch in our wood, and serve us in offices 
That profit us 

but it is hard to see what profit, material or spiritual, Caliban 
gets out of it. He has lost his savage freedom: 

For I am all the subjects that you have 
Which first was mine own king 

and he has lost his savage innocence: 

You taught me language and my profit on’t 
Is, I know how to curse 

so that he is vulnerable to further corruption when he comes 
into contact with the civilized vices of Trinculo and Stephano. 
He is hardly to be blamed, then, if he regards the virtues of 
civilization with hatred as responsible for his condition: 


First to possess his books, for without them 
He’s but a sot, as I am. 

As a biological organism Man is a natural creature subject 
to the necessities of nature; as a being with consciousness and 
will, he is at the same time a historical person with the 
freedom of the spirit. The Tempest seems to me a manichean 
work, not because it shows the relation of Nature to Spirit as 
one of conflict and hostility, which in fallen man it is, but be- 
cause it puts the blame for this upon Nature and makes the 
Spirit innocent. Such a view is the exact opposite of the view 
expressed by Dante: 

Lo naturale i sempre senza errore 
ma Valtro puote errar per male ohbietto 
o per poco o per troppo di vigore. 

(Purgatorio xvn.) 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ 13 * 

The natural can never desire too much or too httle because 
the natural good is the mean — too much and too Ikde are both 
painful to its natural well-being. The natural, conforming to 
necessity, cannot imagine possibility. The closest it can come 
to a relation with the possible is as a vague dream; without 
Prospero, Ariel can only be known to Caliban as “sounds and 
sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” The animals can- 
not fall because the words of the tempter, ‘Te shall be as 
gods,” are in the future tense, and the animals have no future 
tense, for the future tense implies the possibility of doing some- 
thing that has not been done before, and this they cannot 

Man can never know his “nature” because knowing is it- 
self a spiritual and historical act; his physical sensations are 
always accompanied by conscious emotions. It is impossible to 
remember a physical sensation of pleasure or pain, the moment 
it ceases one cannot recall it, and all one remembers is the 
emotion of happiness or fear which accompanied it. On the 
other hand, a sensory stimulus can recall forgotten emotions 
associated with a previous occurrence of the same stimulus, as 
when Proust eats the cake. 

It is unfortunate that the word “Flesh,” set in contrast to 
“Spirit,” is bound to suggest not what the Gospels and St. 
Paul intended it to mean, the whole physical-historical nature 
of fallen man, but his physical nature alone, a suggestion very 
welcome to our passion for reproving and improving others 
instead of examining our own consciences. For, the more 
“fleshly” a sin is, the more obviously public it is, and the easier 
to prevent by the application of a purely external discipline. 
Thus the sin of gluttony exists in acts of gluttony, in eating, 
drinking, smoking too much, etc. If a man restrains himself 
from such excess, or is restrained by others, he ceases to be a 
glutton; the phrase “gluttonous thoughts” apart from glutton- 
ous acts is meaningless. 

As Christ’s comment on the commandment indicates, the 
sin of lust is already “unfleshly” to the degree that it is possible 
to have lustful thoughts without lustful deeds, but the former 
are still “fleshly” in that the thinker cannot avoid knowing 
what they are; he may insist that his thoughts are not sinful but 

132 ] The Well of Narcissus 

he cannot pretend that they are not lustful. Further, the rela- 
tion between thought and act is still direct. The thought is the 
thought of a specific act. The lustful man cannot be a hypo- 
crite to himself except through a symbolic transformation of 
his desires into images which are not consciously lustful. But 
the more “spiritual” the sin, the more indirect is the relation- 
ship between thought and act, and the easier it is to conceal 
the sin from others and oneself. I have only to watch a glutton 
at the dinner table to see that he is a glutton, but I may know 
someone for a very long time before I realize that he is an 
envious man, for there is no act which is in itself envious; 
there are only acts done in the spirit of envy, and there is often 
nothing about the acts themselves to show that they are done 
from envy and not from love. It is always possible, therefore, 
for the envious man to conceal from himself the fact that he is 
envious and to believe that he is acting from the highest of 
motives. While in the case of the purely spiritual sin of pride 
there is no “fleshly” element of the concrete whatsoever, so 
that no man, however closely he observes others, however 
strictly he examines himself, can ever know if they or he are 
proud; if he finds traces of any of the other six capital sins, 
he can infer pride, because pride is fallen “Spirit-in-itself” 
and the source of all the other sins, but he cannot draw the 
reverse inference and, because he finds no traces of the other 
six, say categorically that he, or another, is not proud. 

If man’s physical nature could speak when his spirit re- 
bukes it for its corruption, it would have every right to say, 
“Well, who taught me my bad habits?”; as it is, it has only 
one form of protest, sickness; in the end, all it can do is destroy 
itself in an attempt to murder its master. 

Over against Caliban, the embodiment of the natural, stands 
the invisible spirit of imagination, Ariel. (In a stage produc- 
tion, Caliban should be as monstrously conspicuous as possible, 
and, indeed, suggest, as far as decency permits, the phallic. 
Ariel, on the other hand, except when he assumes a specific 
disguise at Prospero’s order, e.g., when he appears as a harpy, 
should, ideally, be invisible, a disembodied voice, an ideal 

Btdmtn and His Ass 

[ 133 

which, in these days of microphones and loud-sp^kers, should 
be realizable.) 

Caliban was once innocent but has been corrupted; his 
initial love for Prospero has turned into hatred. The toms “in- 
nocent” and “corrupt” cannot be applied to Ariel because he is 
beyond good and evil; he can neither love nor hate, he can 
only play. It is not sinful of Eve to imagine the possibility 
of being as a god knowing good and evil : her sin lay in desiring 
to realize that possibility when she knew it was forbidden her, 
and her desire did not come from her imagination, for imagina- 
tion is without desire and is, therefore, incapable of dis- 
tinguishing between permitted and forbidden possibilities; it 
only knows that they are imaginatively possible. Similarly, 
imagination cannot distinguish the possible from the impos- 
sible; to it the impossible is a species of the genus possible, not 
another genus. I can perfectly well imagine that I might be a 
hundred feet high or a champion heavyweight boxer, and I 
do myself no harm in so doing, provided I do so playfully, with- 
out desire. I shall, however, come to grief if I take the possi- 
bility seriously, which I can do in two ways. Desiring to 
become a heavyweight boxer, I may deceive myself into think- 
ing that the imaginative possibility is a real possibility and 
waste my life trying to become the boxer I never can become. 
Or, desiring to become a boxer, but realizing that it is, for me, 
impossible, I may refuse to relinquish the desire and turn on 
God and my neighbor in a passion of hatred and rejection be- 
cause I cannot have what I want. So Richard III, to punish 
existence for his misfortune in being born a hunchback, de- 
cided to become a villain. Imagination is beyond good and evil. 
Without imagination I remain an innocent animal, unable to 
become anything but what I already am. In order to become 
what I should become, therefore, I have to put my imagination 
to work, and limit its playful activity to imagining those possi- 
bilities which, for me, are both permissible and real; if I allow 
it to be the master and play exacdy as it likes, then I shall 
remain in a dreamlike state of imagining everything I might 
become, without getting round to ever becoming anything. 
But, once imagination has done its work for me, to the degree 

134 J Well of Narcissus 

that, with its help, I have become what I should become, 
imagination has a right to demand its freedom to play without 
any limitations, for there is no longer any danger that I shall 
take its play seriously. Hence the relation between Prospero 
and Ariel is contractual, and, at the end of the drama, Ariel is 

If The Tempest is overpessimistic and manichean. The 
Magic Flute is overoptimistic and pelagian. At the end of the 
opera a double wedding is celebrated; the representative of 
the spiritual, Tamino, finds his happiness in Pamina and has 
attained wisdom while the chorus sing: 

Es siegte die Starke und kronet zum Lohn. 

Die Schonheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron 

and, at the same time, the representative of the natural, Pa- 
pageno is rewarded with Papagena, and they sing together: 

Erst einen kleinen Papageno 
Dann eine kleine Papagena 
Dann wieder einen Papageno 
Dann wieder eine Papagena 

expressing in innocent humility the same attitude which Cali- 
ban expresses in guilty defiance when Prospero accuses him of 
having tried to rape Miranda, 

O ho, O ho! Would’t had been done. 

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else 
This isle with Calibans. 

Tamino obtains his reward because he had had the courage to 
risk his life undergoing the trials of Fire and Water; Papageno 
obtains his because he has had the humility to refuse to risk 
his life even if the refusal will mean that he must remain 
single. It is as if Caliban, when Prospero offered to adopt 
him and educate him, had replied: "Thank you very much, 
but clothes and speech are not for me; It is better I stay in the 

According to The Magic Flute, it is possible for nature and 

BaJaant and His Ass 

[ 135 

spirit to coexist in man harmoniously and without conflict, pro- 
vided both keep to themselves and do not interfere with each 
other, and that, further, the natural has the freedom to refuse 
to be interfered with. 

The greatest of spirit-nature pairs and the most orthodox is, 
of course, Don Quixote-Sancho Panza. Unlike Prospero and 
Caliban, their relationship is harmonious and happy; unlike 
Tamino and Papageno, it is dialectical; each affects the other. 
Further, both they and their relationship are comic; Don 
Quixote is comically mad, Sancho Panza is comically sane, 
and each finds the other a lovable figure of fun, an endless 
source of diversion. It is this omnipresent comedy that makes 
the book orthodox; present the relationship as tragic and the 
conclusion is manichean, present either or both of the char- 
acters as serious, and the conclusion is pagan or pelagian. The 
man who takes seriously the command of Christ to take up his 
cross and follow Him must, if he is serious, see himself as a 
comic figure, for he is not the Christ, only an ordinary man, 
yet he believes that the command, “Be ye perfect,” is seri- 
ously addressed to himself. Worldly “sanity” will say, “I am 
not Christ, only an ordinary man. For me to think that I can 
become perfect would be madness. Therefore, the command 
cannot seriously be addressed to me.” The other can only 
say, “It is madness for me to attempt to obey the command, for 
it seems impossible; nevertheless, since I believe it is ad- 
dressed to me, I must believe that it is possible”; in proportion 
as he takes the command seriously, that is, he will see himself 
as a comic figure. To take himself seriously would mean that 
he thought of himself, not as an ordinary man, but as Christ. 

For Christ is not a model to be imitated, like Hector, or 
Aristotle’s megalopsych, but the Way to be followed, If a man 
thinks that the megalopsych is a desirable model, all he has to 
do is to read up how the megalopsych behaves and imitate him, 
e.g., he will be careful, when walking, not to swing his arms. 

But the Way cannot be imitated, only followed; a Chris- 
tian who is faced with a moral problem cannot look up the 
answer in the Gospels. If someone, for instance, were to let 
his hair and beard grow till he looked like some popular pious 

The Well of Narcissus 

136 ] 

picture of Christ, put on a white linen robe and ride into town 
on a donkey, we should know at once that he was either a 
madman or a fake. At first sight Don Quixote’s madness 
seems to be of this kind. He believes that the world of the 
Romances is the real world and that, to be a knight-errant, all 
he has to do is imitate the Romances exactly. Like Lear, he 
cannot distinguish imaginative possibilities from actualities 
and treats analogies as identities; Lear thinks a stool is his 
daughter, Don Quixote thinks windmills are giants, but their 
manias are not really the same. Lear might be said to be suffer- 
ing from worldly madness. The worldly man goes mad when 
the actual state of affairs becomes too intolerable for his amour- 
propre to accept; Lear cannot face the fact that he is no longer 
a man of power or that he has brought his present situation 
upon himself by his unjust competition. Don Quixote’s mad- 
ness, on the other hand, might be called holy madness, for 
amour-propre has nothing to do with his delusions. If his mad- 
ness were of Lear’s kind, then, in addition to believing that 
he must imitate the knight-errants of old, he would have en- 
dowed himself in their imagination with their gifts, e.g., with 
the youth and strength of Amadis of Gaul : but he does noth- 
ing of the kind; he knows that he is past fifty and penniless, 
nevertheless, he believes he is called to be a knight-errant. 
The knight-errant sets out to win glory by doing great deeds 
and to win the love of his lady, and whatever trials and defeats 
he may suffer on the way, in the end he triumphs. Don 
Quixote, however, fails totally; he accomplishes nothing, he 
does not win his lady, and, as if that were not ignominious 
enough, what he does win is a parody of what a knight-errant 
is supposed to win, for he does, in fact, become famous and 
admired — as a madman. If his were a worldly madness, amour- 
propre would demand that he add to his other delusions the 
delusion of having succeeded, the delusion that the welcome 
he receives everywhere is due to the fame of his great deeds 
(a delusion which his audience do everything to encourage), 
but Don Quixote is perfectly well aware that he has failed to 
do anything which he set out to do. 

At the opposite pole to madness stands philistine realism. 

Bedaaem and His Ass 

[ 137 

Madness says, "Windmills are giants”; philistine realism says, 
"Windmills are only windmills; giants arfe only ^ants,” and 
then adds "Windmills really exist because they provide me 
with flour; giants are imaginary and do not exist b^ause they 
provide me with nothing." (A student of psychoanalysis who 
says, "Windmills and giants are only phallic symbols,” is both 
philistine and mad.) Madness confuses analogies with identi- 
ties, philistine realism refuses to recognize analogies and only 
admits identities; neither can say, “Windmills are like giants.” 

At first sight Sancho Panza seems a philistine realist. "I go,” 
he says, "with a great desire to make money”; it may seem to 
the reader hardly “realistic” of Sancho Panza to believe that he 
will gain a penny, far less an island governorship, by follow- 
ing Don Quixote, but is not the philistine realist who believes 
in nothing but material satisfactions precisely the same type 
to whom it is easiest to sell a nonexistent gold mine? 

The sign that Sancho Panza is not a philistine but a "holy” 
realist is me persistence of his hope of getting something when 
he has realized that his master is mad. It is as if a man who had 
been sold a nonexistent gold mine continued to believe in its 
existence after he had discovered that the seller was a crook. 
It is clear that, whatever Sancho Panza may say, his motives 
for following his master are love of his master, and that equally 
unrealistic of motives, love of adventure for its own sake, a 
poetic love of fun. Just as Don Quixote wins fame, but fame 
as a madman, so Sancho Panza actually becomes the Governor 
of an island, but as a practical joke; as Governor he obtains 
none of the material rewards which a philistine would hope 
for, yet he enjoys himself enormously. Sancho Panza is a 
realist in that it is always the actual world, the immediate 
moment, which he enjoys, not an imaginary world or an antici- 
pated future, but a "holy” realist in that he enjoys the actual 
and immediate for its own sake, not for any material satisfac- 
tions it provides. 

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are both inveterate quoters: 
what the Romances are to the one, proverbs are to the other. 
A Romance is a history, feigned or real. It recounts a series of 
unique and quite extraordinary events which have, or are pur- 

The Well of Narcissus 

138 ] 

ported to have, happened in the past. The source of interest 
is in the events themselves, not in the literary style in which 
they are narrated; as long as the reader learns what happened, 
it is a matter of indifference to him whether the style is imagi- 
native or banal. A proverb has nothing to do with history for 
it states, or claims to state, a truth which is valid at all times. 
The context of “A stitch in time saves nine” belongs to the 
same class as a statement of empirical science like “Bodies at- 
tract each other in direct proportion to their masses.” The 
interest of a proverb, therefore, lies not in its content but in the 
unique way in which that content is expressed; the content is 
always banal because it is a statement of empirical science, and 
a scientific statement which was not banal would not be true. 

Proverbs belong to the natural world where the Model and 
imitation of the Model are valid concepts. A proverb tells one 
exacdy what one should do or avoid doing whenever the 
situation comes up to which it applies: if the situation comes 
up the proverb applies exactly; if it does not come up, the 
proverb does not apply at all. Romances, as we have seen, be- 
long to the historical world of the spirit, where the Model is 
replaced by the Way, and imitation by following. But in man, 
these two worlds are not separate but dialectically related; the 
proverb, as an expression of the natural, admits its relation to 
the historical by its valuation of style; the romance, as an ex- 
pression of the historical, admits its relation to the natural by 
its indifference to style. 

Don Quixote’s lack of illusions about his own powers is a 
sign that his madness is not worldly but holy, a forsaking 
of the world, but without Sancho Panza it would not be 
Christian. For his madness to be Christian, he must have 
a neighbor, someone other than himself about whom he 
has no delusions but loves as himself. Without Sancho 
Panza, Don Quixote would be without neighbors, and the 
kind of religion implied would be one in which love of God 
was not only possible without but incompatible with love 
of one’s neighbor. 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ 139 


He that is greatest among you, let him he as the 
younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth 

— LUKE; XXII, 26 

Che fer quanti si dice piu li nostro tanto possiede 
piu di hen ciascuno. 

— ^DANTE, Purgatorio, xv 

When a lover tells his beloved that she is his mistress and 
that he desires to be her servant, what he is trying, honestly 
or hypocritically, to say is something as follows; “As you 
know, I find you beautiful, an object of desire. I know that 
for true love such desire is not enough; I must also love 
you, not as an object of my desire, but as you are in 
yourself; I must desire your self-fulfillment. I cannot know 
you as you are nor prove that I desire your self-fulfillment, 
unless you tell me what you want and allow me to try and 
give it to you.” 

The proverb, “No man is a hero to his own valet,” does 
not mean that no valet admires his master, but that a valet 
knows his master as he really is, admirable or contemptible, 
because it is a valet’s job to supply the wants of his master, 
and, if you know what somebody wants, you know what he 
is like. It is possible for a master to have not the faintest 
inkling of what his servant is really like — unless his servant 
loves him, it is certain that he never will — but it is impossible 
for a servant, whether he be friendly, hostile or indifferent, not 
to know exactly what his master is like, for the latter reveals 
himself every time he gives an order. 

To illustrate the use of the master-servant relationship as 
a parable of agape, I will take two examples from books 
which present me parable in a clear, simplified form. Around 
the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne and the Jeeves series 
by P. G. Wodehouse. 

Mr. Fogg, as Jules Verne depicts him in his opening chap- 

The Well of Narcissus 

140 ] 

ter, is a kind of stoic saint. He is a bachelor with ample private 
means and does no work, but he is never idle and has no 
vices; he plays whist at his club every evening but never more 
or less than the same number of hands, and, when he wins, 
he mves the money to charity. He knows all about the world 
for he is a religious reader of the newspapers, but he takes 
no part in its affairs; he has no friends and no enemies; he 
has never been known to show emotion of any kind; he seems 
to live “outside of any social relation.” If “apathy” in the 
stoic sense is the highest virtue, then Fogg is a saint. His 
most striking trait, however, is one which seems to have been 
unknown in Classical times, a ritual mania about the exact 
time, an idolatry of the clock — ^his own tells the second, the 
minute, the hour, the day, the month and the year. He not 
only does exacdy the same thing every day, but at exactly 
the same moment. Classical authors like Theophrastus have 
described very accurately most characterological types, but 
none of them, so far as I know, has described The Punctual 
Man (the type to which I personally belong), who cannot 
tell if he is hungry unless it first looks at the clock. It was 
never said in praise of any Caesar, for instance, that he made 
whatever was the Roman eauivalent for trains run on time. 
I have heard it suggested that the first punctual people in 
history were the monks — at their office hours. It is certain at 
least that the first serious analysis of the human experience 
of time was undertaken by St. Augustine, and that the notion 
of punctuality, of action at an exact moment, depends on 
drawing a distinction between natural and historical time 
which Christianity encouraged if it did not invent.® 

By and large, at least, the ancients thought of time either 
as oscillating to and fro like a pendulum or as moving round 
and round like a wheel, and the notion of historical time 
moving in an irreversible unilateral direction was strange 
to them. Both oscillation and cyclical movement provide a 
notion of change, but of change for-a-time; this for-a-time 
may be a long time — the pendulum may oscillate or the 

* The Greek notion of kairos, the propitious moment for doing 
contained the seed of the notion of punctuality, but the seed did not flower. 

Balaam and His Ass 

[ 141 

wheel revolve very slowly — ^but sooner or later all events 
reoccur: there is no place for a notion df absoliite novelty, 
of a unique event which occurs once and for all at a particular 
moment in time. This latter notion cannot be derived from our 
objective experience of the outside world — ^all the movements 
we can see there are either oscillatory or C3^1ical — ^but only 
form our subjective inner experience of time in such phenom- 
ena as memory and anticipation. 

So long as we think of it objectively, time is Fate or Chance, 
the factor in our lives for which we are not responsible, and 
about which we can do nothing; but when we begin to think 
of it subjectively, we feel responsible for our time, and the 
notion of punctuality arises. In training himself to be superior 
to circumstance, the ancient stoic would discipline his passions 
because he knew what a threat they could be to the apathy 
he sought to acquire, but it would not occur to him to dis- 
cipline his time, because he was unaware that it was his. 
A modem stoic like Mr. Fogg knows that the surest way to 
discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want 
or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly 
the same moment every day, and passion will give you no 

Mr. Fogg has been so successful with himself that he is 
suffering from huhris; he is convinced that nothing can 
happen to him which he has not foreseen. Others, it is true, 
are often unreliable, but the moment he finds them so, he 
severs relations with them. On the morning when the story 
opens, he has just dismissed his servant for bringing him 
his shaving water at a temperature of 84° instead of the proper 
86° and is looking for a new one. His conception of the just 
relation between master and servant is that the former must 
issue orders which are absolutely clear and unchanging — the 
master has no right to puzzle his servant or surprise him with 
an order for which he is not prepared — and the latter must 
carry them out as impersonally and efficiendy as a machine 
— one slip and he is fired. The last thing he looks for in a 
servant or, for that matter, in anyone else is a personal friend. 

On the same morning Passepartout has given notice to 

The Well of Narcissus 

142 ] 

Lord Longsferry because he cannot endure to work in a chaotic 
household where the master is “brought home too frequendy 
on the shoulders of policemen." Himself a sanguine, mercurial 
character, what he seeks in a master is the very opposite of 
what he would seek in a friend. He wishes his relation to 
his master to be formal and impersonal; in a master, therefore, 
he seeks his opposite, the phlegmatic character. His ideal of 
the master-servant relation happens, therefore, to coincide 
with Fogg’s, and to the mutual satisfaction of both, he is 
interviewed and engaged. 

But that evening the unforeseen happens, the bet which 
is to send them both off round the world. It is his huhris which 
tempts Mr. Fogg into making the bet; he is so convinced that 
nothing unforeseen can occur which he cannot control that 
he cannot allow his club mates to challenge this conviction 
without taking up the challenge. Further, imknown to him, 
by a chance accident which he could not possibly have fore- 
seen, a bank robbery has just been committed, and the de- 
scription of the thief given to the police plus his sudden 
departure from England have put him under suspicion. Off 
go Mr. Fogg and Passepartout, then, pursued by the detective 
Fix. In the boat train Passepartout suddenly remembers that 
in the haste of packing he has left the gas fire burning in 
his bedroom. Fogg does not utter a word of reproach but 
merely remarks that it will bum at Passepartout’s expense till 
they return. Mr. Fogg is still the stoic with the stoic con- 
ception of justice operating as impersonally and inexorably 
as the laws of nature. It is a fact that it was Passepartout, 
not he, who forgot to turn off the gas; the hurry caused by 
his own sudden decision may have made it difficult for Passe- 
partout to remember, but it did not make it impossible: there- 
fore, Passepartout is responsible for his forgetfulness and must 
pay the price. 

Then in India the decisive moment arrives: they mn into 
preparations for the suttee, against her will, of a beautiful 
young widow, Aouda. For the first time in his life, apparendy, 
Mr. Fogg is confronted personally with human injustice and 
suffering, and a moral choice. If, like the priest and the 

Balaam and His 

[ 143 

Levite, he passes by on the other side, he will catch the boat 
at Calcutta and win his bet with ease; if he attempts to save 
her, he will miss his boat and run a serious risk of losing his 
bet. Abandoning his stoic apathy, he chooses the second mter- 
native, and from that moment on his relationship with 
Passepartout ceases to be impersonal; fhilia is felt by both. 
Moreover, he discovers that Passepartout has capacities which 
his normal duties as a servant would never have revealed, but 
which in this emergency situation are particularly valuable 
because Mr. Fogg himself is without them. But for Passe- 
partout’s capacity for improvisation and acting which allow 
him successfully to substitute himself for the corpse on the 
funeral pyre, Aouda would never have been saved. Hitherto, 
Mr. Fogg has always believed that there was nothing of im- 
portance anyone else could do which he could not do as well 
or better himself; for the first time in his life he abandons 
that belief. 

Hitherto, Passepartout has thought of his master as an 
unfeeling automaton, just, but incapable of generosity or 
self-sacrifice; had he not had this unexpected revelation, he 
would certainly have betrayed Mr. Fogg to Fix, for the 
detective succeeds in convincing him that his master is a 
bank robber, and, according to the stoic notion of impersonal 
justice which Mr. Fogg had seemed to exemplify, that would 
be his duty, but, having seen him act personally. Passepartout 
refuses to assist impersonal justice. 

Later, when the Trans-American express is attacked by 
Indians, it is Passepartout’s athletic ability, a quality irrelevant 
to a servant’s normal duties, which saves me lives of Mr. 
Fogg and Aouda at the risk of his own, for he is captmed by 
the Indians. In such an act the whole contractum master- 
servant relation is transcended; that one party shall undertake 
to sacrifice his life for the other cannot be a clause in any 
contract. The only possible repayment is a similar act, and 
Mr. Fogg lets the relief train go without him, sacrificing what 
may well be his last chance of winning his bet, and goes 
back at the risk of his life to rescue Passepartout. 

Like Mr. F<^, Bertie Wooster is a bachelor with private 

144 ] The Well of Narcissus 

means who does no work, but there all the resemblance 
ceases. Nobody could possibly be less of a stoic than the 
latter. If he has no vices it is because his desires are too 
vague and too fieeting for him to settle down to one. Hardly 
a week passes without Bertie Wooster thinking he has at last 
met The Girl; for a week he imagines he is her Tristan, but 
the next week he has forgotten her as completely as Don 
Giovanni forgets; besides, nothing ever happens. It is nowhere 
suggested that he owned a watch or that, if he did, he could 
tell the time by it. By any worldly moral standard he is a 
footler whose existence is of no importance to anybody. Yet 
it is Bertie Wooster who has the incomparable Jeeves for his 
servant. Jeeves could any day find a richer master or a place 
with less arduous duties, yet it is Bertie Wooster whom he 
ciiooses to serve. The lucky Simpleton is a common folk-tale 
hero; for example, the Third Son who succeeds in the Quest 
appears, in comparison with his two elder brothers, the least 
talented, but his ambition to succeed is equal to theirs. He 
sets out bravely into the unknown, and unexpectedly 
triumphs. But Bertie Wooster is without any ambition what- 
soever and does not lift a finger to help himself, yet he is 
rewarded with what, for him, is even better than a beautiful 
Princess, the perfect omniscient nanny who does everything 
for him and keeps him out of trouble without, however, ever 
trying, as most nannies will, to educate and improve him. 

— I say, Jeeves, a man I met at the club last night told 
me to put my shirt on Privateer for the two o’clock race 
this afternoon. How about it> 

— I should not advocate it, sir. The stable is not 

— ^Talking of shirts, have those mauve ones I ordered 
arrived yet? 

— ^Yes, sir. I sent them back. 

— Sent them back? 

— ^Yes, sir. They would not have become you. 

The Quest Hero often encounters an old beggar or an 
animal who offers him advice: if, too proud to imagine that 

Balaam and His Ass [ 145 

such an appaiendy inferior creature could have anything to- 
tell him, he ignores the advice, it has fatal cbnsequences; 
if he is humble enough to listen and obey, then, thanks to 
their help, he achieves his goal. But, however humble he may 
be, he still has the dream of becoming a hero; he may be hum- 
ble enough to take advice from what seem to be his inferiors, 
but he is convinced that, potentially, he is a superior person, 
a prince-to-be. Bertie Wooster, on the other hand, not only 
knows that he is a person of no account, but also never 
expects to become anything else; till his dying day he will 
remain, he knows, a footler who requires a nanny; yet, at 
the same time, he is totally without envy of others who are 
or may become of some account. He has, in fact, that rarest 
of virtues, humility, and so he is blessed: it is he and no- 
other who has for his servant the godlike Jeeves. 

— All the other great men of 
crowd, watching you go by 
— ^Thank you very mu<m, sir. I endeavor to give satis- 

So speaks comically — and in what other mode than the comic 
could it on earth truthfully speak? — the voice of Agape,, 
of Holy Love. 

the age are simply in the 


I had not known sin, hut hy the law. 

ROMANS: vn, 7 

A Confession 

For me, as for many others, the readii^ of detective stories 
is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol. Tne symptoms of this 
are: firstly, the intensity of the craving — if I have any work 
to do, I must be careful not to get hold of a detective story 
for, once I begin one, I cannot work or sleep till I have 
finished it. Secondly, its specificity — the story must conform 
to certain formulas (I find it very difficult, for example, to 
read one that is not set in rural England). And, thirdly, 
its immediacy. I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, 
and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, 
I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have 
read it before, I cannot go on. 

The Guilty Vicarage 

f 147 

Such reactions convince me that, in my case at least, detective 
stories have nothing to do with works of art. R is possible, 
however, that an analysis of the detective story, i.e., of the 
kind of detective story I enjoy, may throw light, not only on 
its magical function, but also, by contrast, on the function of 


The vulgar definition, “a Whodunit,” is correct. The basic 
formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but 
one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer 
is arrested or dies. 

This definition excludes: 

1 ) Studies of murderers whose guilt is known, e.g.. Malice 
Aforethought. There are borderline cases in which the mur- 
derer is known and there are no false suspects, but the proof 
is lacking, e.g., many of the stories of Freeman Wills Crofts. 
Most of these are permissible. 

2) Thrillers, spy stories, stories of master crooks, etc., when 
the identification of the criminal is subordinate to the defeat 
of his criminal designs. 

The interest in the thriller is the ethical and eristic conflict 
between good and evil, between Us and Them. The interest 
in the study of a murderer is the observation, by the innocent 
many, of the sufferings of the guilty one. The interest in the 
detective story is the dialectic of innocence and guilt. 

As in the Aristotelian description of tragedy, there is Con- 
cealment (the innocent seem guilty and the guilty seem 
innocent) and Manifestation (the real guilt is brought to 
consciousness). There is also peripeteia, in this case not a 
reversal of fortune but a double reversal from apparent guilt 
to innocence and from apparent innocence to guilt. The for- 
mula may be diagrammed as follows: 

• 4<1 

Peaceful state before 

False clues, secondary 
murder, etc. 


Arrest of murderer 


state after 

The W0 <of Ntftjssfts 

False innocence 

Revelation of presence 
of ^ilt 

False location of guilt 

Location of real guilt 


True Innocence 


In Greek tragedy the audience knows the truth; the actors 
do not, but discover or bring to pass the inevitable. In modem, 
e.g., Elizabethan, tragedy the audience knows neither less 
nor more than the most knowing of the actors. In the detective 
story the audience does not know the truth at all; one of 
the actors — the murderer — does; and the detective, of his 
own free will, discovers and reveals what the murderer, of 
his own free will, tries to conceal. 

Greek tragedy and the detective story have one character- 
istic in common in which they both differ from modern 
tragedy, namely, the characters are not changed in or by 
their actions: in Greek tragedy because their actions are 
fated, in the detective story because the decisive event, the 
murder, has already occurred. Time and space therefore are 
simply the when and where of revealing either what has to 
happen or what has actually happened. In consequence, the 
detective story probably should, and usually does, obey the 
classical unities, whereas modem tragedy, in which the char- 
acters develop with time, can only do so by a technical tour 


de force; and the thriller, like the picaresque novel, even <fc- 
mands frequent changes of time and place. 

Why Murder? 

There are three classes of crime: (A) offenses against God 
and one's neighbor or neighbors; (B) offenses against God 
and society; (C) offenses against God. (All crimes, of course, 
are offenses against oneself.) 

Murder is a member and the only member of Class B. 
The character common to all crimes in Class A is that it is 
possible, at least theoretically, either that restitution can be 
made to the injured party (e.g., stolen goods can be returned), 
or that the injured party can forgive the criminal (e.g., in 
the case of rape). Consequently, society as a whole is only in- 
directly involved; its representatives (the police, etc.) act in 
the interests of the injured party. 

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, 
so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his 
behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one 
crime in which society has a direct interest. 

Many detective stories begin with a death that appears to be 
suicide and is later discovered to have been murder. Suicide 
is a crime belonging to Class C in which neither the criminal’s 
neighbors nor society has any interest, direct or indirect. As 
long as a death is believed to be suicide, even private curiosity 
is improper; as soon as it is proved to be murder, public in- 
quiry becomes a duty. 

The detective story has five elements — the milieu, the 
victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives. 

The Milieu (Human) 

The detective story requires: 

i) A closed society so that the possibility of an outside 
murderer (and hence of the society being totally innocent) 
is excluded; and a closely related society so that all its members 
are potentially suspect (cf. the thriller, which requires an open 
society in which any stranger may be a friend or enemy in 

Such conditions are met by: a) the group of blood rela- 

The Well of Narcissus 

150 ] 

lives (the Christmas dinner in the country house); b) the 
closely knit geographical group (the old world village); c) 
the occupational group {the theatrical company); d) the 
group isolated by the neutral place (the Pullman car). 

In this last type the concealment-manifestation formula 
applies not only to the murder but also to the relations between 
the members of the group who first appear to be strangers 
to each other, but are later found to be related. 

2) It must appear to be an innocent society in a state 
of grace, i.e., a society where there is no need of the law, 
no contradiction between the aesthetic individual and the 
ethical universal, and where murder, therefore, is the un- 
heard-of act which precipitates a crisis (for it reveals that some 
member has fallen and is no longer in a state of grace). The 
law becomes a reality and for a time all must live in its 
shadow, till the fallen one is identified. With his arrest, inno- 
cence is restored, and the law retires forever. 

The characters in a detective story should, therefore, be 
eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (in- 
stinctively ethical) — good, that is, either in appearance, later 
shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appear- 
ance of bad. 

It is a sound instinct that has made so many detective story 
writers choose a college as a setting. The ruling passion of 
the ideal professor is the pursuit of knowledge for its own 
sake so that he is related to other human beings only in- 
directly through their common relation to the truth; and 
those passions, like lust and avarice and envy, which relate 
individuals directly and may lead to murder are, in his case, 
ideally excluded. If a murder occurs in a college, therefore, 
it is a sign that some colleague is not only a bad man but 
also a bad professor. Further, as the basic premise of academic 
life is that truth is. universal and to be shared with all, the 
gnosis of a concrete crime and the gnosis of abstract ideas 
nicely parallel and parody each other. 

(The even more ideal contradiction of a murder in a 
monastery is excluded by the fact that monks go regularly to 
confession and, while the murderer might well not confess 

The Guilty Vicarage 

I 151 

his crime, the suspects who are innocent of murder but 
guilty of lesser sins cannot be supposed to conced them with- 
out making the monastery absurd. Incidentally, is it an ac- 
cident that the detective story has flourished most in 
predominantly Protestant countries?) 

The detective story writer is also wise to choose a society 
with an elaborate ritual and to describe this in detail. A rituu 
is a sign of harmony between the aesthetic and the ethical 
in which body and mind, individual will and general laws, 
are not in conflict. The murderer uses his knowledge of the 
ritual to commit the crime and can be caught only by someone 
who acquires an equal or superior familiarity with it. 

The Milieu (Natural) 

In the detective story, as in its mirror image, the Quest 
for the Grail, maps Cthe ritual of space) and timetables (the 
ritual of time) are desirable. Nature should reflect its human 
inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the 
more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. 
The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighbor- 
hood (but not too well-to-do — or there will be a suspicion of 
ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock 
not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for 
a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes 
a mess on a drawing room carpet. 

Mr. Raymond Chandler has written that he intends to 
take the Ix^y out of the vicarage garden and give the murder 
back to those who are good at it. If he wishes to write de- 
tective stories, i.e., stories where the reader’s principal interest 
is to learn who did it, he could not be more mistaken, for in 
a society of professional criminals, the only possible motives 
for desiring to identify the murderer are blackmail or revenge, 
which both apply to individuals, not to the group as a whole, 
and can equally well inspire murder. Actually, whatever he 
may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not 
detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, 
the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely de- 
pressing books should be read and judged, not as escape 
literature, but as works of art. 

The Well of Narcissiis 

152 ] 

The Victim 

The victim has to try to satisfy two contradictory require- 
ments. He has to involve everyone in suspicion, which re- 
quires that he be a bad character; and he has to make everyone 
1^1 guilty, which requires that he be a good character. He 
cannot be a criminal because he could then be dealt with by 
the law and murder would be imnecessary. (Blackmail is the 
only excq>tion.) The more general the temptation to murder 
he arouses, the better; e.g., the desire for freedom is a better 
motive than money alone or sex alone. On the whole, the best 
victim is the negative Father or Mother Image. 

If there is more than one murder, the subsequent victims 
should be more innocent than the initial victim, i.e., the 
murderer should start with a real grievance and, as a conse- 
quence of righting it by illegitimate means, be forced to 
murder against his will where he has no grievances but his 
own guilt. 

The Murderer 

Murder is negative creation, and every murderer is there- 
fore the rebel who claims the ^ht to be omnipotent. His 
pathos is his refusal to suffer. Tne problem for the writer 
is to conceal his demonic pride from the other characters 
and from the reader, since, if a person has this pride, it tends 
to appear in everything he says and does. To surprise the 
reader when the identity of the murderer is revealed, yet at 
the same time to convince him that everything he has pre- 
viously been told about the murderer is consistent with his 
being a murderer, is the test of a good detective story. 

As to the murderer's end, of the three alternatives — execu- 
tion, suicide, and madness — the first is preferable; for if he 
commits suicide he refuses to repent, and if he goes mad he 
cannot repent, but if he does not repent society cannot forgive. 
Execution on the other hand, is the act of atonement by 
which the murderer is forgiven by society. In real life I 
disapprove of capital punishment, but in a detective story the 
murderer must have no future. 

(A Suggestion for Mr. Chandler: Among a group of eflS- 

The Guilty Vicarage 

I *53 

dent professional killers who murder for strictl) 
reasons, there is one to whom, like Leopold and Li^b, murder 
is an acte gjratuit. Presendy murders begin to occur which 
have not b^n commissioned. The group is morally outraged 
and bewildered; it has to call in the police to detect the 
amateur murderer, rescue the professionals from a mutual 
suspicion which threatens to disrupt their organization, and 
restore their capacity to murder.) 

The Suspects 

The detective-story society is a society consisting of ap- 
parendy innocent individuds, i.e., their aesthetic interest 
as individuals does not conflict with their ethical obligations 
to the universal. The murder is the act of disruption by which 
innocence is lost, and the individual and the law become 
opposed to each other. In the case of the murderer this op- 
position is completely real (dll he is arrested and consents 
to be punished); in the case of the suspects it is mosdy ap- 

But in order for the appearance to exist, there must be some 
element of reality; e.g., it is imsatisfactory if the suspicion is 
caused by chance or the murderer’s malice alone. The suspects 
must be guilty of something, because, now that the aesthetic 
and the ethical are in opposition, if they are completely inno- 
cent (obedient to the ethical) they lose their aesthedc interest 
and the reader will ignore them. 

For suspects, the principal causes of guilt are: 

1) the wish or even the intention to murder; 

2) crimes of Class A or vices Class C Ce.g., illicit amours) 
which the suspect is afraid or ashamed to reveal; 

3) a hubris of intellect which tries to solve the crime itself 
and despises the official police (assertion of the supremacy of 
the aesthetic over the ethical). If great enough, this hubris 
leads to its subject getting murdered; 

4) a hubris of innocence which refuses to cooperate with 
the investigation; 

5) a lack of faith in another loved suspect, which leads 
its subject to hide or confuse dues. 

The Well of Narcissus 

>54 ] 

The Detective 

Completely satisfactory detectives are extremely rare. In- 
deed, I only know of three: Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), 
Inspector French (Freeman Wills Crofts), and Father Brown 

The job of detective is to restore the state of grace in 
which the aesthetic and the ethical are as one. Since the 
murderer who caused their disjunction is the aesthetically de- 
fiant individual, his opponent, the detective, must be either 
the official representative of the ethical or the exceptional in- 
dividual who is himself in a state of grace. If he is the former, 
he is a professional; if he is the latter, he is an amateur. 
In either case, the detective must be the total stranger who 
cannot possibly be involved in the crime; this excludes the 
local police and should, I think, exclude the detective who is 
a friend of one of the suspects. The professional detective 
has the advantage that, since he is not an individual hut a 
representative or the ethical, he does not need a motive for 
investigating the crime; but for the same reason he has the 
disadvantage of being unable to overlook the minor ethical 
violations of the suspects, and therefore it is harder for him 
to gain their confidence. 

Most amateur detectives, on the other hand, are unsatis- 
factory either because they are priggish supermen, like Lord 
Peter Wimsey and Philo Vance, who have no motive for 
being detectives except caprice, or because, like the detectives 
of the hard-boiled school, they are motivated by avarice or 
ambition and might just as well be murderers. 

The amateur detective genius may have weaknesses to give 
him aesthetic interest, but they must not be of a kind which 
outrage ethics. The most satisfactory weaknesses are the 
solitary oral vices of eating and drinking or childish boast- 
ing. In his sexual life, the detective must be either celibate 
or happily married. 

Between the amateur detective and the professional police- 
man stands the criminal lawyer whose telos is, not to discover 
who is guilty, but to prove that his client is innocent. His 
ethical justification is that human law is ethically imperfect, 
i.e., not an absolute manifestation of the universal and divine. 

The Guilty Vicarage [ 155 

and subject to chance aesthetic limitations, e.g., the intelli- 
gence or stupidity of individual policemen and juries (in 
consequence of which an innocent man may sometimes be 
judged guilty). 

To correct this imperfection, the decision is arrived at 
through an aesthetic combat, i.e., the intellectual gifts of the 
defense versus those of the prosecution, just as in earlier days 
doubtful cases were solved by physical combat between the 
accused and the accuser. 

The lawyer-detective (e.g., Joshua Clunk) is never quite 
satisfactory, therefore, because of his commitment to his client, 
whom he cannot desert, even if he should really be the guilty 
party, without ceasing to be a lawyer. 

Sherlock Holmes 

Holmes is the exceptional individual who is in a state of 
grace because he is a genius in whom scientific curiosity 
is raised to the status of a heroic passion. He is erudite but 
his knowledge is absolutely specialized (e.g., his ignorance 
of the Copernican system), he is in all matters outside his 
field as helpless as a child (e.g., his untidiness), and he pays 
the price for his scientific detachment (his neglect of feeling) 
by being the victim of melancholia which attacks him when- 
ever he is unoccupied with a case (e.g., his violin playing 
and cocaine taking). 

His motive for being a detective is, positively, a love of 
the neutral truth (he has no interest in the feelings of the 
guilty or the innocent), and negatively, a need to escape 
from his own feelings of melancholy. His attitude towards peo- 
ple and his technique of observation and deduction are those 
of the chemist or physicist. If he chooses human heings rather 
than inanimate matter as his material, it is because investi- 
gating the inanimate is unheroically easy since it cannot tell 
lies, which human beings can and do, so that in dealing with 
them, observation must be twice as sharp and logic twice as 

Inspector French 

His class and culture are those natural to a Scotland Yard 
inspector. (The old . Oxonian Inspector is insufferable.) His 

The Well of Narcissus 


motive is love of duty. Holmes detects for his own sake and 
shows the maximum indifference to all feelings except a nega- 
tive fear of his own. French detects for the sake of the 
innocent members of society, and is indifferent only to his 
own feelings and those of the murderer. (He would much 
rather stay at home with his wife.) He is exceptional only 
in his exceptional love of duty which makes him take ex- 
ceptional pains; he does only what all could do as well if they 
had the same patient industry (his checking of alibis for 
tiny flaws which careless hurry had missed). He outwits the 
murderer, partly because the latter is not quite so pain- 
staking as he, and pardy because the murderer must act alone, 
while he has the help of all the innocent people in the world 
who are doing their duty, e.g., the postmen, railway clerks, 
milkmen, etc., who become, accidentally, witnesses to the 

Father Brown 

Like Holmes, an amateur; yet, like French, not an indi- 
vidual genius. His activities as a detective are an incidental 
part of his activities as a priest who cares for souls. His prime 
motive is compassion, of which the guilty are in greater 
need than the innocent, and he investigates murders, not 
for his own sake, nor even for the sake of the innocent, but 
for the sake of the murderer who can save his soul if he will 
confess and repent. He solves his cases, not by approaching 
them objectively like a scientist or a policeman, but by sub- 
jectively imagining himself to be the murderer, a process 
which is good not only for the murderer but for Father Brown 
himself because, as he saj^, “it gives a man his remorse 

Holmes and French can only help the murderer as teachers, 
i.e., they can teach him that murder will out and does not 
pay. More they cannot do since neither is tempted to murder; 
Holmes is too gifted, French too well trained in the habit of 
virtue. Father Brown can go further and help the murderer 
as an example, i.e., as a man who is also tempted to murder, 
but is able by faith to resist temptation. 

The Guilty Vicarage [ 15-7 

The Reader 

The most curious fact about the detective story is that it 
makes its greatest appeal precisely to those classes of people 
who are most immune to other forms of daydream literature. 
The typical detective story addict is a doctor or clergyman 
or scientist or artist, i.e., a fairly successful profession^ man 
with intellectual interests and well-read in his own field, who 
could never stomach the Saturday Evening Post or True Con- 
fessions or movie magazines or comics. If I ask myself why 
I cannot enjoy stories about strong silent men and lovely girls 
who make love in a beautiful landscape and come into mil- 
lions of dollars, I cannot answer that I have no fantasies 
of being handsome and loved and rich, because of course 
I have (though my life is, perhaps, sufficiently fortunate 
to make me less envious in a naive way than some). No, 
I can only say that 1 am too conscious of the absurdity of such 
wishes to enjoy seeing them reflected in print. 

I can, to some degree, resist yielding to these or similar de- 
sires which tempt me, but I cannot prevent myself from hav- 
ing them to resist; and it is the fact that I have them which 
makes me feel guilty, so that instead of dreaming about 
indulging my desires, I dream about the removal of me guilt 
which I feel at their existence. This I still do, and must do, 
because guilt is a subjective feeling where any further step 
is only a reduplication — feeling guilty about guilt. I suspect 
that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a 
person who suflFers from a sense of sin. From the point of view 
of ethics, desires and acts are good and bad, and I must 
choose the good and reject the bad, but the I which makes 
this choice is ethically neutral; it only becomes good or bad 
in its choice. To have a sense of sin means to feel guilty at 
there being an ethical choice to make, a guilt which, however 
“good” I may become, remains unchanged. It is sometimes said 
that detective stories are read by respectable law-abiding citi- 
zens in order to gratify in fantasy the violent or muroCTOUS 
wishes they dare not, or are ashamed to, translate into action. 
This may be true for the reader of thrillers (which I rarely 
enjoy), but it is quite false for the reader of detective stories. 

The Well of Narcissus 

158 ] 

On the contrary, the magical satisfaction the latter provide 
(which makes them escape literature, not works of art) is the 
illusion of being dissociated from the murderer. 

The magic formula is an innocence which is discovered 
to contain guilt; then a suspicion of being the guilty one; 
and hnally a real innocence from which the guilty other has 
been expelled, a cure effected, not by me or my neighbors, 
but by the miraculous intervention of a genius from outside 
who removes guilt by giving knowledge of guilt. (The de- 
tective story subscribes, in fact, to the Socratic daydream: “Sin 
is ignorance.”) 

If one thinks of a work of art which deals with murder. 
Crime and Punishment for example, its effect on the reader 
is to compel an identification with the murderer which he 
would prefer not to recognize. The identification of fantasy 
is always an attempt to avoid one’s own suffering: the 
identification of art is a sharing in the suffering of another. 
Kafka’s The Tried is another instructive example of the differ- 
ence between a work of art and the detective story. In the 
latter it is certain that a crime has been committed and, 
temporarily, uncertain to whom the guilt should be attached; 
as soon as this is known, the innocence of everyone else is 
certain. (Should it turn out that after all no crime has been 
committed, then all would be innocent.) In The Trial, on 
the other hand, it is the guilt that is certain and the crime that 
is uncertain; the aim of the hero’s investigation is not to 
prove his innocence (which would be impossible for he 
knows he is guilty), but to discover what, if anything, he has 
done to make himself guilty. K, the hero, is, in fact, a portrait 
of the kind of person who reads detective stories for escape. 

'The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges 
is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to 
a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and 
not as the law. The driving force behind this daydream is 
the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the 
dreamer. The fantasy of escape is the same, whether one 
explains the guilt in Christian, Freudian, or any other terms. 
One's way of trying to face the reality, on the other hand, 
will, of course, depend very much on one’s creed. 


The joys of this life are not its own, hut our 
dread of ascending to a higher life: the torments 
of this life are not its own, but our self-torment 
because of that dread. 


Kafka is a great, perhaps the greatest, master of the pure 
parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very 
little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator 
at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic 
significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by char- 
acters, situations, actions which, though they may be anal- 
ogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance 
of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons 
involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare 
Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done 
and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, 
firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a 

The Well of Narcissus 

160 ] 

pure parable in this way. Though the hero of a parable may 
be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be 
called “a certain man” or “K”) and a definite historical and 
geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the 
meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable 
means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself 
with what I read. The “meaning” of a parable, in fact, is differ- 
ent for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic 
can do to “explain” it to others. Thanks to his superior knowl- 
edge of artistic and social history, of language, of human na- 
ture even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or 
a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for 
themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only 
reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what 
the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he 
does not and cannot have any idea. 

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, 
“This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens,” but 
nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one 
can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, 
while one would never call an experience of one’s own 
Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent 
a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I 
hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came 
to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. “Where are 
you going?” said the guard. “I’m trying to get out,” I replied. 
“You are out,” he said. For the moment I felt I was K. 

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowl- 
edge of his personal life and character contributes almost 
nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case 
of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information 
is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by pre- 
venting one from making false readings. (The “true” read- 
ings are always many.) 

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes 
a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), 
called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the 
Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers 

The 1 Without a Self [ i6x 

speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The 
Duchess who owns the castle is kind and goodi but she is 
often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants 
are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and 
selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea 
of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine 
of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to 
gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she 
tells the truth, and all ends happily. 

What is illuminating about this information is that the 
castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, 
which suggests that those critics who have thought of the 
inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were 
mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially 

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily 
fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, suc- 
cessfully holding an advanced position against the 
manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any 
conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those 
interpreters who see in the castle the residence of “divine 
law and divine grace.” Its officers are totally indifferent 
to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their 
decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace 
of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detach- 
ment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion. 

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, 
if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than 
in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was 
the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. 
The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by 
the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again. 

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle ate, Kafka’s finest 
work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great WaJl 
of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. 
The w(»ld it portrays is still the world of his earlier books 
and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The 

The Well of Narcissus 

162 ] 

sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like 
“The Penal Colony" almost unbearable, has gone. Existence 
may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters 
are more humorously resigned to it. 

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula 
of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the tradi- 
tional Quest, the goal — a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. 
— is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant 
and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor 
the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who 
know both and give him accurate directions and warnings. 
Moreover the go^ is publicly recognizable as desirable. Every- 
body would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by 
the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest 
in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of 
their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, 
thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, 
like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he 
will succeed. 

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is 
peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some 
beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are ob- 
structive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion 
of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: “There is a goal 
but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering.” Far 
from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced 
from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, 
being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts 
to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself 
a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under 
a special curse. 

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. 
Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, 
because of impatience we cannot return. 

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of 
happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in 
oneself and not strive after it. 

The I Without a Self 

t 163 

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what 
he ought to do and his one problem is "Can I do it?” Odysseus 
knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in 
quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detec- 
tive knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. 
But for K the problem is “What ought I to do?” He is neither 
tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor 
carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is 
certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without 
knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he 
must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen 
wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions 
and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, 
he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; 
it may well be proof of his own. 

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like 
Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first- 
case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in 
the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious 
hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquir- 
ing the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to 
say 1 . But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he 
exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt. 

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be 
K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through 
the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to be- 
come a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like 
everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to 

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but 
it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But 
the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory 
properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and 
faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed 
in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, 
I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts 
the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries 
to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for 
which he was created, and freedom would destroy him. 

The Well of Narcissus 

164 ] 

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will 
go — ^not the rending or the block from its foundation, 
which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and 
with that the gay and empty journey. 

The narrator hero of “The Burrow” for example, is a beast 
of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like 
animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself 
without a mate and never encounters any other member of 
his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he 
be pursued and attacked by other animals — “My enemies are 
countless,” he says — ^but we never learn what they may be 
like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation 
is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when 
he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress 
was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the 
burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: 
“Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable bur- 
row?” This is a torment because he can never be certain that 
there is not some further precaution of which he has not 
thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing 
has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as 
he would defend himself. 

One of my favorite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep 
from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thick- 
ness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free 
space of about the same width all around the Castle 
Keep ... I had always pictured this free space, and not 
without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a 
joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull one- 
self up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing 
and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games 
literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid 
the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one 
wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and 
yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe 
between one’s claws . . . 

The I Without a Self 

[ 165 

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not 
be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance 
and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the 
help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but’ decides 
against it. 

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; 
would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in it- 
self, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be ex- 
quisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for 
visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him ... I 
simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go 
in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we 
must both descend at the same time, in which case the 
advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of 
being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust 
can I really put in him? ... It is comparatively easy to 
trust any one if you are supervising him or at least super- 
vise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a 
distance; but completely to trust some one outside the 
burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a 
different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible. 

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which 
he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but 
it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a 
hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, 
know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story 
breaks off without a solution. Edwin Muir has suggested that 
the story would have ended with the appearance of the in- 
visible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubt- 
ful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that 
the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears 
have any objective justification. 

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously 
we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be 
destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a 
fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: “To be 
worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. 

i66 ] The Well of Narcissus 

But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. 
Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy 
of me." But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell 
us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explana- 

It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an 
artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedi- 
cated to a particular function, whose personal existence is ac- 
cidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of 
whom it could be said that he “hungered and thirsted after 
righteousness,” it was Kafka. Perhaps he came to regard what 
he had written as a personal device he had employed in his 
search for God. “Writing,” he once wrote, “is a form of prayer,” 
and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be 
overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his 
aim in writing thus: 

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table 
with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and 
simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way 
that people could say: “Hammering a table together is 
nothing to him,” but rather “Hammering a table together 
is really hammering a table together to him, but at the 
same time it is nothing,” whereby certainly the hammer- 
ing would have become still bolder, still surer, still more 
real, and if you will, still more senseless. 

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work 
published should at least make a reader wary of the way in 
which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers 
who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on 
whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and 
on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be danger- 
ous, even harmful. 

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka 
when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health 
and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart- 
searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one 
should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspec- 

The I Without a Self 

[ 167 

tion is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal 
passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a 
spineless narcissistic fascination with ones own sin and weak- 

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can 
avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean no- 
tion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of 
Kafka's sayings come perilously close to accepting it. 

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physi- 
cal world is the evil in the spiritual one. 

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil 
which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the 
physical world. 

Kafka's own life and his writings as a whole are proof that 
he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can always 
be recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself 
as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly 
affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows 
himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the 
grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judg- 
ment cannot be applied to its actions. 

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his 
heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think 
of the higher life they search for as existing in some other- 
world sphere: the distinction they draw between this world 
and the world does not imply that there are two different 
worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the 
true conception. 

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka 
foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers. 


The Shakespearian 


Physiological life is of course not "Life.” And 
neither is psychological life. Life is the world. 


It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to form a complete pic- 
ture of life because, for that, we have to reconcile and combine 
two completely different impressions — that of life as each of 
us experiences it in his own person, and that of life as we all 
observe it in others. 

When I observe myself, the I which observes is unique, but 
not individual, since it has no characteristics of its own; it has 
only the power to recognize, compare, judge and choose: the 
self which it observes is not a unique identity but a succession 
of various states of feeling or desire. Necessity in my world 
means two things, the givenness of whatever state of myself is 
at any moment present, and the obligatory freedom of my ego. 

172 ] The ShtJtespearian City 

Action in my world has a special sense; I act towards my states 
of being, not towards the stimuli which provoked them; tny 
action, in fact, is the giving or withholding of permission to 
myself to act. It is impossime for me to act in ignorance, for 
my world is by definition what I know; it is not even possible, 
stricdy speaking, for me to be self-deceived, for if I know I am 
deceiving myself, I am no longer doing so; I can never believe 
that I do not know what is good for me. I cannot say that I 
am fortunate or unfortunate, for these words apply only to 
my self. Though some states of my self are more interesting 
to me than others, there are none which are so uninteresting 
that I can ignore them; even boredom is interesting because it 
is my boredom with which I have to cope. If I try, then, to 
project my subjective experience of life in dramatic form the 
play will be of the allegorical morality type like Everyman. The 
hero will be the volitional ego that chooses, and the other 
characters, either states of the self, pleasant and unpleasant, 
good and bad, for or against which the hero’s choices are made, 
or counselors, like reason and conscience, which attempt to 
influence his choices. The plot can only be a succession of 
incidents in time — the number I choose to portray is arbitrary 
— and the passing of time from birth to death the only neces- 
sity; all else is free choice. 

If now I turn round and, deliberately excluding everything 
I know about myself, scrutinize other human beings as ob- 
jectively as I can, as if I were simply a camera and a tape- 
recorder, I experience a very different world. I do not see 
states of being but individuals in states, say, of anger, each 
of them different and caused by diflFerent stimuli. I see and 
hear people, that is to say, acting and speaking in a situation, 
and the situation, their acts and words are all I know. I never 
see another choose between two alternative actions, only the 
action he does take. I cannot, therefore, tell whether he has 
free will or not; I only know that he is fortunate or unfortunate 
in his circumstances. I may see him acting in ignorance of 
facts about his situation which I know, but I can never say for 
certain that in any given situation he is deceiving himself. 
Then, while it is impossible for me to be totally uninterested in 

The Globe [ 173 

anything that happens to my self, I can only be interested in 
others who "catch my attention” by being exceptions to the 
average, exceptionally powerful, exceptionally beautiful, ex- 
ceptionally amusing, and my interest or lack of it in what they 
do and suffer is determined by the old journalistic law that 
Dog-Bites-Bishop is not news but Bishop-Bites-Dog is. 

If I try to present my objective experience in dramatic form, 
the play will be of the Greek type, the story of an exceptional 
man or woman who suffers an exceptional fate. The drama 
will consist, not in the choices he freely makes, but in the 
actions which the situation obliges him to take. 

The pure drama of consciousness and the drama of pure 
objectivity are alike in that their characters have no secrets; 
the audience knows all about them that there is to know. One 
cannot imagine, therefore, writing a book about the char- 
acters in Greek tragedy or the characters in the morality plays; 
they themselves have said all there is to say. The fact that it 
has been and always will be possible to write books about the 
characters in Shakespeare’s plays, in which different critics ar- 
rive at completely different interpretations, indicates that the 
Elizabethan drama is different from either, being, in fact, an 
attempt to synthesize both into a new, more complicated type. 

Actually, of course, the Elizabethan dramatists knew very little 
about classical drama and owed very litde to it. The closet 
tragedies of Seneca may have had some influence upon their 
style of rhetoric, the comedies of Plautus and Terence pro- 
vided a few comic situations and devices, but Elizabethan 
drama would be pretty much the same if these authors had 
never been known at all. Even Ben Jonson, the only “high- 
brow” among the playwrights, who was strongly influenced by 
the aesthetic theories of the humanists, owes more to the 
morality play than he does to Latin Comedy. Take away 
Everyman, substitute for him as the hero one of the seven 
deadly sins, set the other six in league to profit from it, and 
one has the basic pattern of the Jonsonian comedy of humors. 

The link between the medieval morality play and the Eliza- 
bethan drama is the Chronicle play. If few of the pre- 

174 1 Shakespearian City 

Shakespearian chronicle plays except Marlowe’s Edward II 
are now readable, nothing could have been more fortunate for 
Shakespeare’s development as a dramatist than his being com- 
pelled for his livelihood — ^judging by his early poems, his 
youthful taste was something much less coarse — to face the 
problems which the chronicle play poses. The writer of a 
chronicle play cannot, like the Greek tragedians who had some 
significant myth as a subject, select his situation; he has to 
take whatever history offers, those in which a character is a 
victim of a situation and those in which he creates one. He 
can have no narrow theory about aesthetic propriety which 
separates the tragic from the comic, no theory of heroic arete 
which can pick one historical character and reject another. 
The study of the human individual involved in political ac- 
tion, and of the moral ambiguities in which history abounds, 
checks any tendency towards a simple moralizing of characters 
into good and bad, any equating of success and failure with 
virtue and vice. 

The Elizabethan drama inherited from the mystery plays three 
important and very un-Greek notions. 

The Significance of Time 

Time in Greek drama is simply the time it takes for the 
situation of the hero to be revealed, and when this revelation 
shall take place is decided by the gods, not by men. The plague 
which sets the action of Oedipus Rex in motion could have 
been sent earlier or postponed. In Elizabethan drama time is 
what the hero creates with what he does and suffers, the 
medium in which he realizes his potential character. 

The Significance of Choice 

In a Greek tragedy everything that could have been other- 
wise has already happened before the play begins. It is true 
that sometimes the chorus may warn the hero against a course 
of action, but it is unthinkable that he should listen to them, 
for a Greek hero is what he is and cannot change. If Hippol- 
ytus had made a sacrifice to Aphrodite, he would have 
ceased to be Hippolytus. But in an Elizabethan tragedy, in 

TheGlfibe [ 175 

Othello, for example, there is no point before he actually 
murders Desdemona when it would nave been impossible for 
him to control his jealousy, discover the truth, and convert 
the tragedy into a comedy. Vice versa, there is no point in a 
comedy like The Two Gentlemen of Verona at which a wrong 
turning could not be taken and the conclusion be tragic. 

The Significance of Suffering 
To the Greeks, suffering and misfortune are signs of the 
displeasure of the gods and must therefore be accepted by men 
as mysteriously just. One of the commonest kinds of suffering 
is to be compelled to commit crimes, either unwittingly, like 
the parricide and incest of Oedipus, or at the direct command 
of a god, like Orestes. These crimes are not what we mean 
by sins because they are against, not with, the desire of the 
criminal. But in Shakespeare, suffering and misfortune are 
not in themselves proofs of Divine mspleasure. It is true 
that they would not occur if man had not fallen into sin, 
but, precisely because he has, suffering is an inescapable 
element in life — there is no man who does not suffer — to 
be accepted, not as just in itself, as a penalty proportionate 
to the particular sins of the sufferer, but as an occasion for 
grace or as a process of purgation. Those who try to refuse 
suffering not only fail to avoid it but are plunged deeper 
into sin and suffering. Thus, the difference between Shake- 
speare’s tragedies and comedies is not that the characters suffer 
in the one and not in the other, but that in comedy the suffer- 
ing leads to self-knowledge, repentance, forgiveness, love, and 
in tragedy it leads in the opposite direction into self-blindness, 
defiance, hatred. 

The audience at a Greek tragedy are pure spectators, never 
participants; the sufferings of the hero arouse their pity 
and fear, but they cannot think, “Something similar might 
happen to me,” for the whole point in a Greek tragedy is that 
the hero and his tragic fate are exceptional. But all of Shake- 
speare’s tragedies might be called variations on the same tragic 
myth, the only one which Christianity possesses, the story 
of the unrepentant thief, and anyone of us is in danger 

176 ] The Shakespearian City 

of re-enacting it in his own way. The audience at a tragedy 
of Shakespeare’s, therefore, has to be both a spectator and a 
participant, for it is both a feigned history and a parable. 

Dr. Johnson was right, surely, when he said of Shakespeare; 
“His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.” 
It seems to me doubtful if a completely satisfactory tragedy 
is possible within a Christian society which does not believe 
that there is a necessary relation between suffering and guilt. 
The dramatist, therefore, is faced with two choices. He can 
show a noble and innocent character suffering exceptional mis- 
fortune, but then the effect will be not tragic but pathetic. 
Or he can portray a sinner who by his sins — usually the 
sins have to produce crimes — ^brings his suffering upon him- 
self. But, then, there is no such thing as a noble sinner, for 
to sin is precisely to become ignoble. Both Shakespeare 
and Racine try to solve the problem in the same way, by 
giving the sinner noble poetry to speak, but both of them 
must have known in their heart of hearts that this was a 
conjuring trick. Any journalist could tell the story of Oedipus 
or Hippolytus and it would be just as tragic as when Sophocles 
or Euripides tells it. The difference would be only that the 
journalist is incapable of providing Oedipus and Hippolytus 
with the noble language which befits their tragedy, while 
Sophocles and Euripides, being great poets, can. 

But let a journalist tell the story of Macbeth or Phedre and 
we shall immediately recognize them for what they are, one a 
police court case, the other a pathological case. The poetry 
that Shakespeare and Racine have given them is not an out- 
ward expression of their noble natures, but a gorgeous robe 
which hides their nakedness. D. H. Lawrence’s poem seems 
to me not altogether unjust. 

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder 
that such trivial people should muse and thunder 
in such lovely language. 

Lear, the old buffer, you wonder his daughters 

didn’t treat him rougher, 

the old chough, the old chuffer. 

The Globe 

f *77 

And Hamlet, how boring, how horing to live with, 
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring 
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring! 

And Macbeth and his Lady, who should have been 

such suburban ambition, so messily goring 
old Duncan with daggers! 

How boring, how small Shakespeare’s people are! 

Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar. 

Comedy, on the other hand, is not only possible within a 
Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and 
depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because 
classical comedy is based upon the division of mankind into 
two classes, those who have arete and those who do not, 
and only the second class, fools, shameless rascals, slaves, 
are fit subjects for comedy. But Christian comedy is based 
upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, 
whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the 
comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek 
sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be 
exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy 
believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, 
Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge 
others and that it is our duty to forgive each other. In classi- 
cal comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when 
the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on 
stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are 
exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience 
and the characters are laughing together. Ben Jonson’s 
comedies, unlike Shakespeare’s, are classical, not Christian. 

If the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson — and Jonson is 
untypical, anyway — had been lost, we should find in the 
dramatic literature written between 1590 and 1642 many 
passages of magnificent poetry, many scenes of exciting 
theatre, but no play which is satisfactory as a whole; the 

The Shakespearian City 

178 ] 

average Elizabethan play is more like a variety show — a series 
of scenes, often moving or entertaining enough in themselves, 
but without essential relation to each other — than like a 
properly constructed drama in which every character and 
every word is relevant. For this defect we should probably 
blame the laxness of Elizabethan stage conventions, which 
permitted the dramatist to have as many scenes and characters 
as he liked, and to include tragic and comic scenes, verse 
and prose, in the same play. Fortunately, Shakespeare's plays 
have not perished, and we are able to see how greatly, in his 
case, these conventions contributed towards his achievement. 
Had the stage conventions of his day been those, for example, 
of the French classical theatre in the seventeenth century, 
he could not, given his particular kind of genius and interests, 
have become the greatest creator of “Feigned Histories” in 
dramatic form who ever lived. In the preface to Mrs. Warrens 
Profession, with his typical mixture of perspicacity and 
polemical exaggeration, Shaw writes: 

The drama can do little to delight the senses: all the ap- 
parent instances to the contrary are instances of the 
personal fascination of the performers. The drama of 
pure feeling is no longer in the hands of the play- 
wright: it has been conquered by the musician, after 
whose enchantment all the verbal arts seem cold and 
tame. Romeo and Juliet with the loveliest Juliet is dry, 
tedious and rhetorical in comparison with Wagner’s 
Tristan, even though Isolde be both fourteen stone and 
forty, as she often is in Germany . . . There is, flatly, 
no future now for any drama without music except the 
drama of thought. The attempt to produce a genus of 
opera without music (and this absurdity is what our 
fashionable theatres have been driving at for a long time 
past without knowing it) is far less hopeful than my own 
determination to accept problems as the normal material 
for drama.^ 

* Curiously enough, now we have got used to them, what impresses us 
most about Shaw’s plays is their musical quality. He has told us himself 
that it was from Don Giovanni that he learned ''How to write seriously 

The Globe 

[ >79 

Every aspect of life is, of course, a problem., The belief 
Shaw is attacking is the belief that the only problem worth 
a playwright’s attention is love between the sexes, considered 
in isolation from everything else which men and women 
think and do. Like all persons engaged in polemic, he accepts 
the view of Shakespeare held by his opponents, namely, that, 
as a dramatist, Shakespeare, even when his characters are 
princes and warriors, was only interested in their “private” 
emotional life. In actual fact, however, the revolt of Ibsen 
and Shaw against the conventional nineteenth century drama 
could very well be described as a return to Shakespeare, as 
an attempt once again to present human beings in their 
historical and social setting and not, as playwrights since the 
Restoration had done, either as wholly private or as em- 
bodiments of the social manners of a tiny class. Shakespeare’s 
plays, it is true, are not, in the Shavian sense, “dramas of 
thought,” that is to say, not one of his characters is an 
intellectual: it is true, as Shaw says, that, when stripped of 
their wonderful diction, the philosophical and moral views 
expressed by his characters are commonplaces, but the number 
of people in any generation or society whose thoughts are 
not commonplace is very small indeed. On the other hand, 
there is hardly one of his plays which does not provide un- 
ending food for thought, if one cares to think about it. Romeo 
and Juliet, for example, is by no means merely a “drama 
of feeling,” a verbal opera about a love affair between two 
adolescents; it is also, and more importantly, a portrait of 
a society, charming enough in many ways, but morally in- 
adequate because the only standard of value by which its 
members regulate and judge their conduct is that of la bella 

without being dull/’ For all his claims to be just a propagandist, his writing 
has an effect nearer to that of music than most of those who have claimed 
to be writing “dramas of feeling.” His plays are a joy to watch, not because 
they purport to deal with social and political problems, but because they are 
such wonderful displays of conspicuous waste; the conversational energy 
displayed by his characters is so far in excess of what their situation requires 
that, if it were to be devoted to practical action, it would wreck the world 
in five minutes. The Mozart of English letters he is not—the music of the 
Marble Statue is beyond him— the Rossini, yes. He has all the brio, humor, 
cruel clarity and virtuosity of that Master of o^era buffa. 

i8o ] 

The Shakespearian City 

or la hrutta figura. The disaster that overtakes the young lovers 
is one symptom of what is wrong with Verona, and every 
citizen, from Prince Escalus down to the starving apothecary, 
has a share of responsibility for their deaths. Quite aside 
from their different temperaments and talents, one can see 
a good reason why Shakespeare does not need to tell the 
audience his “thoughts,” while Shaw is obliged to. Thanks to 
the conventions and the economics of the Elizabethan theatre, 
Shakespeare can present his picture of Verona in twenty- 
four scenes with a cast of thirty speaking roles and a crowd 
of walk-ons. Shaw has to write for a picture stage framed by 
a proscenium arch, furnished with sets which admit of few 
changes of location, and for actors whose salary scale makes 
a large cast prohibitively expensive. When, therefore, he 
writes about a social problem such as slum landlords, he 
is obliged to tell us through an intellectual debate between 
the few characters in the few locations at his disposal what 
he cannot present dramatically as evidence from which we 
could draw the conclusions for ourselves. 

As a dramatic historian, Shakespeare was born at just the right 
time. Later, changes in the conventions and economics of the 
theatre made it an inadequate medium, and feigned histories 
became the province of the novelist. Earlier, dramatic history 
would have been impossible, because the only history which 
was recognized as such was sacred history. The drama had to 
become secularized before any adequate treatment of human 
history was possible. Greek tragedy, like the mystery play, is 
religious drama. What the hero does himself is subordinate to 
what the gods make him do. Further, the gods are concerned, 
not with human society, but with certain exceptional indi- 
viduals. The hero dies or goes into exile, but his city, as 
represented by the chorus, remains. The chorus may give him 
support or warning advice, but they cannot influence his ac- 
tions and bear no responsibility for them. Only the hero has a 
biography; the chorus are mere observers. Human history can- 
not be written except on the presupposition that, whatever part 
God may play in human affairs, we cannot say of one event. 

The Globe 

[ i8i 

‘This is an act of God,” of another, “This is a natural event,” 
and of another, “This is a human choice”; we can only record 
what happens. The allegorical morality plays are concerned 
with history, but only with subjective history; the social- 
historical setting of any particular man is deliberately ex- 

We do not know what Shakespeare^s personal beliefs were, nor 
his opinion on any subject (though most of us privately think 
we do). All we can notice is an ambivalence in his feelings 
towards his characters which is, perhaps, characteristic of all 
great dramatists. A dramatist's characters are, normally, men- 
of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned, 
not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with 
making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible 
forever. The dramatist, therefore, admires and envies in his 
characters their courage and readiness to risk their lives and 
souls — qua dramatist, he never risks himself — but, at the 
same time, to his detached imagination, all action, however 
glorious, is vain because the consequence is never what the 
doer intended. What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; 
what he makes, he can always modify or even destroy. In all 
great drama, I believe, we can feel the tension of this ambiva- 
lent attitude, torn between reverence and contempt, of the 
maker towards the doer. A character for whom his creator felt 
either absolute reverence or absolute contempt would not, 
I think, be actable. 


Whoever takes up the sword shall perish hy the 
sword. And whoever does not take up the 
sword (or lets it drop) shall perish on the cross. 


It has been observed that critics who write about Shakespeare 
reveal more about themselves than about Shakespeare, but 
perhaps that is the great value of drama of the Shakespearian 
kind, namely, that whatever he may see taking place on stage, 
its final effect upon each spectator is a self-revelation. 

Shakespeare holds the position in our literature of Top 
Bard, but this deserved priority has one unfortunate conse- 
quence; we generally make our first acquaintance with his 
plays, not in the theatre, but in the classroom or study, so that, 
when we do attend a performance, we have lost that naive 
openness to surprise which is the proper frame of mind in 
which to witness any drama. The experience of reading a 

The Prime’s Dog [ 183 

play and the experience of watching it performed are never 
identical, but in the ease of Henry IV the difference between 
the two is particularly great. 

At a performance, my immediate reaction is to wonder what 
Falstaff is doing in this play at all. At the end of Richard II, 
we were told that the Heir Apparent has taken up with a 
dissolute crew of “unrestrained loose companions.” What sort 
of bad company would one expect to find Prince Hal keeping 
when the curtain rises on Henry IV? Surely, one could expect 
to see him surrounded by daring, rather sinister juvenile 
delinquents and beautiful gold-digging whores. But whom 
do we meet in the Boar’s Head? A fat, cowardly tosspot, old 
enough to be his father, two down-at-heel hangers-on, a 
slatternly hostess and only one whore, who is not in her 
earliest youth either; all of them seedy, and, by any worldly 
standards, including those of the criminal classes, all of them 
failures. Surely, one thinks, an Heir Apparent, sowing his 
wild oats, could have picked himself a more exciting crew 
than that. As the play proceeds, our surprise is replaced by 
another kind of puzzle, for the better we come to know Fal- 
staff, the clearer it becomes that the world of historical reality 
which a Chronicle Play claims to imitate is not a world which 
he can inhabit. 

If it really was Queen Elizabeth who demanded to see 
Falstaff in a comedy, then she showed herself a very perceptive 
critic. But even in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff has 
not and could not have found his true home because Shake- 
speare was only a poet. For that he was to wait nearly two 
hundred years till Verdi wrote his last opera. Falstaff is not 
the only case of a character whose true home is the world of 
music; others are Tristan, Isolde, and Don Giovanni.^ 

Though they each call for a different kind of music, Tristan, 
Don Giovanni, and Falstaff have certain traits in common. 
They do not belong to the temporal world of change. One 
cannot imagine any of them as babies, for a Tristan who is 
not in love, a Don Giovanni who has no name on his list, a 

^ If Verdi’s Machetto fails to come off, the main reason is that the proper 
world for Macbeth is poetry, not song; he won’t go into notes. 

i84 ] 

The Shakespearian City 

Falstaff who is not old and fat, are inconceivable. When Fal- 
staff says, “When I was about their years, Hal, I was not an 
eagle’s talent in the waist; I could have crept into an alder- 
man’s thumb-ring” — we take it as a typical Falstaffian fib, but 
we believe him when he says, “I was born about three in the 
afternoon, with a white head and something of a round belly.” 

Time, for Tristan, is a single moment stretched out tighter 
and tighter until it snaps. Time, for Don Giovanni, is an 
infinite arithmetical series of unrelated moments which has 
no beginning and would have no end if Heaven did not inter- 
vene and cut it short. For Falstaff, time does not exist, since 

he belongs to the opera huffa world of play and mock action 
governed not by will or desire, but by innocent wish, a world 

where no one can suffer because everything he says and does 
is only a pretense. 

Thus, while we must see Tristan die in Isolde’s arms and 

we must see Don Giovanni sink into the earth, because being 
doomed to die and to go to hell are essential to their beings, 
we cannot see Falstaff die on stage because, if we did, we 
should not believe it; we should know that, as at the battle 

of Shrewsbury, he was only shamming. I am not even quite 
sure that we believe it when we are told of his death in 

Henry V; I think we accept it, as we accept the death of 
Sherlock Holmes, as his creator’s way of saying, “I am getting 
tired of this character”; we feel sure that, if the public pleads 
with him strongly enough, Shakespeare will find some way to 
bring him to life again. The only kind of funeral music we 
can associate with him is the mock-requiem in the last act 
of Verdi’s opera. 

Domine folio casto 
Domine folio guasto. 

Ma salvaggi Vaddomine 
Ma salvaggi Vaddomine. 

’There are at least two places in the play where the in- 
congruity of the opera huffa world with the historical world 
is too much, even for Shakespeare, and a patently false note 
is struck. The first occurs when, on the battlefield of Shrews- 

The Prince’s Dog [185 

bury, FaktafF thrusts his sword into Hotspur’s corpse. Within 
his own world, FalstafiF could stab a corpse bemuse, there, 
all battles are mock battles, all corpses straw dummies; but 
we, the audience, are too conscious that this battle has been 
a real battle and that this corpse is the real dead body of a 
brave and noble young man. Pistol could do it, because Pistol 
is a contemptible character, hut Falstaff cannot; that is to say, 
there is no way in which an actor can play the scene con- 
vincingly. So, too, with the surrender of Colevile to Falstaff 
in the Second Part. In his conversation, first with Colevile 
and then with Prince John, Falstaff talks exactly as we expect 
— to him, the whole business is a huge joke. But then he is 
present during a scene when we are shown that it is no joke 
at all. How is any actor to behave and speak his lines during 
the following? 

LANCASTER — Is thy name Colevile? 

COLEVILE — It is, my lord. 

LANCASTER — A famous rebel art thou, Colevile. 

FALSTAFF — And a famous true subject took him. 

COLEVILE — I am, my lord, but as my betters are, 

That led me hither. Had they been ruled by me. 

You would have won them dearer than you have. 

FALSTAFF — I know not how they sold themselves: but 
thou, like a kind fellow, gavest thyself away gratis; 
and I thank thee for thee. 

LANCASTER — Now have you left pursuit? 

WESTMORELAND— -Retreat is made and execution stay’d. 

LANCASTER — Send Colevile, with his confederates. 

To York, to present execution. 

The Falstaffian frivolity and the headsman’s axe cannot so 
direcdy confront each other. 

Reading Henry IV, we can easily give our full attention to 
the historical-political scenes, but, when watching a perform- 
ance, attention is distracted by our eagerness to see Falstaff 
reappear. Short of cutting him out of the play altogether, no 
producer can prevent him stealing the show. From an actor’s 
point of view, the role of Falstaff has the enormous advantage 

i86 ] The Shakespearian City 

that he has only to think of one thing — playing to an audience. 
Since he lives in an eternal present and the historical world 
does not exist for him, there is no difference for Falstaff be- 
tween those on stage and those out front, and if the actor were 
to appear in one scene in Elizabethan costume and in the next 
in top hat and morning coat, no one would be bewildered. 
The speech of all the other characters is, like our own, con- 
ditioned by two factors, the external situation with its ques- 
tions, answers, and commands, and the inner need of each 
character to disclose himself to others. But Falstaff’s speech 
has only one cause, his absolute insistence, at every moment 
and at all costs, upon disclosing himself. Half his lines could 
be moved from one speech to another without our noticing, 
for nearly everything he says is a variant upon one theme — 
“I am that I am.” 

Moreover, Shakespeare has so written his part that it can- 
not be played unsympathetically. A good actor can make us 
admire Prince Hal, but he cannot hope to make us like him 
as much as even a second-rate actor will make us like Falstaff. 
Sober reflection in the study may tell us that Falstaff is not, 
after all, a very admirable person, but Falstaff on the stage 
gives us no time for sober reflection. When Hal or the Chief 
Justice or any others indicate that they are not bewitched 
by Falstaff, reason might tell us that they are in the right, 
but we ourselves are already bewitched, so that their dis- 
enchantment seems out of place, like the presence of tee- 
totalers at a drunken party. 

Suppose, then, that a producer were to cut the Falstaff 
scenes altogether, what would Henry IV become? The middle 
section of a political trilogy which could be entitled Looking 
for the Doctor. 

The body politic of England catches an infection from its 
family physician. An able but unqualified practitioner throws 
him out of the sickroom and takes over. The patient’s tempera- 
ture continues to rise. But then, to everybody’s amazement, 
the son of the unqualified practitioner whom, though he has 
taken his degree, everyone has hitherto believed to be a hope- 
less invalid, effects a cure. Not only is the patient restored to 

The Prince's Dog [ 187 

health hut also, at the doctor’s orders, takes another body 
politic, France, to wife. 

The theme of this trilogy is, that is to say, the question: 
What combination of qualities is needed in the Ruler whose 
function is the establishment and maintenance of Temporal 
Justice? According to Shakespeare, the ideal Ruler must satisfy 
five conditions, i ) He must know what is just and what is 
unjust. 2) He must himself be just. 3) He must be strong 
enough to compel those who would like to be unjust to be- 
have justly. 4) He must have the capacity both by nature and 
by art of making others loyal to his person. 5) He must be 
the legitimate ruler by whatever standard legitimacy is de- 
termined in the society to which he belongs. 

Richard II fails to satisfy the first four of these. He does 
not know what Justice is, for he follows the advice of foolish 
flatterers. He is himself unjust, for he spends the money he 
obtains by taxing the Commons and fining the Nobility, not 
on defending England against her foes, but upon maintaining 
a lavish and frivolous court, so that, when he really does 
need money for a patriotic purpose, the war with Ireland, 
his exchequer is empty and in desperation he commits a gross 
act of injustice by confiscating Bolingbroke's estates. 

It would seem that at one time he had been popular but 
he has now lost his popularity, partly on account of his actions, 
but also because he lacks the art of winning hearts. According 
to his successor, he had made the mistake of being overfamiliar 
— the ruler should not let himself be seen too often as 
“human” — ^and in addition, he is not by nature the athletic, 
physically brave warrior who is the type most admired by the 
feudal society he is called upon to rule. 

In consequence, Richard II is a weak ruler who cannot keep 
the great nobles in order or even command the loyalty of his 
soldiers, and weakness in a ruler is the worst defect of all. 
A cruel, even an unjust king, who is strong, is preferable to 
the most saintly weakling because most men will behave 
unjustly if they discover that they can with impunity; tyranny, 
the injustice of one, is less unjust than anarchy, the in- 
justice of many. 

i88 ] The Shakesfearum City 

But there remains the fifth condition: whatever his defects, 
Richard II is the legitimate King of England. Since all men 
are mortal, and many men are ambitious, unless there is some 
impersonal principle by which, when the present ruler dies, 
the choice of his successor can be decided, there will be a 
risk of civil war in every generation. It is better to endure 
the injustice of the legitimate ruler, who will die anyway 
sooner or later, than allow a usurper to take his place by force. 

As a potential ruler, Bolingbroke possesses many of the right 
qualities. He is a strong man, he knows how to make himself 
popular, and he would like to be just. We never hear, even 
from the rebels, of any specific actions of Henry IV which 
are unjust, only of suspicions which may be just or unjust. 
But in yielding to the temptation, when the opportunity un- 
expectedly offers itself, of deposing his lawful sovereign, he 
commits an act of injustice for which he and his kingdom have 
to pay a heavy price. Because of it, though he is strong enough 
to crush rebellion, he is not strong or popular enough to 
prevent rebellion breaking out. 

Once Richard has been murdered, however, the rule of 
Henry IV is better than any alternative. Though, legally, 
Mortimer may have a good or better right to the throne, the 
scene at Bangor between Hotspur, Worcester, Mortimer, and 
Glendower, convinces us that Henry’s victory is a victory for 
justice since we learn that the rebels have no concern for 
the interests of the Kingdom, only for their own. Their plan, 
if they succeed, is to carve up England into three petty states. 
Henry may wish that Hotspur, not Hal, were his heir, be- 
cause Hotspur is a brave warrior ready to risk bis life in battle 
against England’s foes, while Hal appears to be dissipated and 
frivolous, but we know better. Hotspur is indeed brave, but 
that is all. A man who can say 

I’ll give thrice so much land 
To any well-deserving friend; 

But in the way of bargain, mark ye me. 

I’ll cavil on the ninth part of a hair 

The Prince’s Dog 

[ 189 

is clearly unfitted to be a ruler because his actions are based, 
not on justice, but on personal whim. Moreover, he is not 
interested in political power; all he desires is military glory. 

Thirdly, there is Prince Hal, Henry V-to-be. To everyone 
except himself, he seems at first to be another Richard, unjust, 
lacking in self-control but, unfortunately, the legitimate heir. 
By the time the curtain falls on Henry V, however, he is 
recognized by all to be the Ideal Ruler. Like his father in his 
youth, he is brave and personable. In addition, he is a much 
cleverer politician. While his father was an improviser, he is a 
master of the art of timing. His first soliloquy reveals him as a 
person who always sees several steps ahead and has the pa- 
tience to wait, even though waiting means temporary mis- 
understanding and unpopularity, until the right moment for 
action comes; he will never, if he can help it, leave anything 
to chance. Last but not least, he is blessed by luck. His father 
had foreseen that internal dissension could only be cured if 
some common cause could be found which would unite all 
parties but he was too old and ill, the internal quarrels too 
violent. But when Hal succeeds as Henry V, most of his 
enemies are dead or powerless — Cambridge and Scroop have 
no armies at their back — and his possible right to the throne 
of France provides the common cause required to unite 
both the nobles and the commons, and gives him the oppor- 
tunity, at Agincourt, to show his true mettle. 

One of FalstafFs dramatic functions is to be the means by 
which Hal is revealed to be the Just Ruler, not the dissolute 
and frivolous young man everybody has thought him; but, so 
far as the audience is concerned, Falstaff has fulfilled his 
function by Act III, Scene 2 of the First Part, when the King 
entrusts Hal with a military command. Up to this point the 
Falstaff scenes have kept us in suspense. In Act I, Scene 2, 
we hear Hal promise 

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill. 

Redeeming time when men least think I will. 

But then we watch the rebellion being prepared while he 
does nothing but amuse himself with Falstaff, so that we are 

The Shakespearian City 

190 ] 

left wondering whether he meant what he said or was only 
play acting. But from the moment he engages in the political 
action of the play, we have no doubts whatsoever as to his 
ambition, capacity, and ultimate triumph for, however often 
henceforward we may see him with Falstaff, it is never at a 
time when his advice and arms are needed by the State; he 
visits the Boar’s Head in leisure hours when there is nothing 
serious for him to do. 

For those in the play, the decisive moment of revelation 
is, of course, his first public act as Henry V, his rejection of 
Falstaff and company. For his subjects who have not, as we 
have, watched him with Falstaff, it is necessary to allay their 
fears that, though they already know him to be brave and 
Capable, he may still be unjust and put his personal friend- 
ships before the impartial justice which it is his duty as king 
to maintain. But we, who have watched his private life, have 
no such fears. We have long known that his first soliloquy 
meant what it said, that he has never been under any false 
illusions about Falstaff or anyone else and that when the right 
moment comes to reject Falstaff, that is to say, when such a 
rejection will make the maximum political effect, he will do 
so without hesitation. Even the magnanimity he shows in 
granting his old companion a life competence, which so im- 
presses those about him, cannot impress us because, knowing 
Falstaff as they do not, we know what the effect on him of 
such a rejection must be, that his heart will be "fracted and 
corroborate” and no life competence can mend that. It is 
Hal’s company he wants, not a pension from the Civil List. 

The essential Falstaff is the Falstaff of The Merry Wives 
and Verdi’s opera, the comic hero of the world of play, the 
unkillable self-sufficient immortal whose verdict on existence 

Tutto nel montio e htirla. . . . 
Tutti gabbdti. Irride 
L’un I’cdtro ogni mortal. 

Ma ride ben chi ride 
La risata final 

The Prince's Dog [ 191 

In Henry IV, however, something has happened to this im- 
mortal which draws him out of his proper world into the 
historical world of suffering and death. He has become capable 
of serious emotion. He continues to employ the speech of his 
comic world; 

I have forsworn his company hourly any time this two- 
and-twenty years, and yet I am bewitchea by the rogue’s 
company. If the rascal have not given me medicines to 
make me love him. I’ll be hanged. It could not be else. 

I have drunk medicines. 

But the emotion so flippantly expressed could equally well 
be expressed thus: 

If my dear love were but the child of state 
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered. 

As subject to Time’s love or to Time’s hate. 

Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers 

No, it was builded far from accident; 

It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls 
Under the blow of thralled discontent. 

Whereto th’ inviting time and fashion calls 

It fears not Policy, that heretic 

Which works on leases of short numbered hours. 

But all alone stands hugely politic. 

As the play proceeds, we become aware, behind all the fun, 
of something tragic. Falstaff loves Hal with an absolute de- 
votion. “The lovely bully’’ is the son he has never had, the 
youth predestined to the success and worldly glory which 
he will never enjoy. He believes that his love is returned, that 
the Prince is indeed his other self, so he is happy, despite old 
age and poverty. We, however, can see that he is living in a 
fool’s paradise, for the Prince cares no more for him as a 
person than he would care for the King’s Jester. He finds Fal- 
staff amusing but no more. If we could warn Falstaff of what 

ipi ] The Shdkespettrian City 

he is too blind to see, we might well say; Beware, before it 
is too late, of becoming involved with one of those mortals 

That do not do the thing they most do show. 

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone. . . . 

Falstaff's story, in fact, is not unlike one of those folk tales 
in which a mermaid falls in love with a mortal prince: the 
price she pays for her infatuation is the loss of her immortality 
without the compensation of temporal happiness. 

Let us now suppose, not only that Falstaff takes no part in 
the play, but is also allowed to sit in the audience as a spec- 
tator. How much will he understand of what he sees going on? 

He will see a number of Englishmen divided into two 
parties who finally come to blows. That they should come to 
blows will in itself be no proof to him that they are enemies 
because they might, like boxers, have agreed to fight for fun. 
In Falstaff’s world there are two causes of friendship and 
enmity. My friend may be someone whose appearance and 
manner I like at this moment, my enemy someone whose ap- 
pearance and manner I dislike. Thus, he will understand 
Hotspur’s objection to Bolingbroke perfectly well. 

Why, what a candy deal of courtesy 

This fawning greyhound then did proffer me. 

“Look, when his infant fortune came to age,” 

And "gentle Harry Percy” and “kind cousin.” 

O the devil take such cozeners. 

To Falstaff, “my friend” can also mean he whose wish at this 
moment coincides with mine, “my enemy” he whose wish 
contradicts mine. He will see the civil war, therefore, as a 
clash between Henry and Mortimer who both wish to wear 
the crown. What will perplex him is any argument as to 
who has the better right to wear it. 

Anger and fear he can understand, because they are imme- 
diate emotions, but not nursing a grievance or planning re- 
venge or apprehension, for these presuppose that the future 
inherits from the past. He will not, therefore, be able to make 

The Prince’s Dog 

[ 193 

head or tail of Warwick’s speech, “There is a history in all 
men’s lives . . . nor any reasons the rebels give for their 
actions which are based upon anything Bolingbroke did 
before he became king, nor the reason given by Worcester 
for concealing the king’s peace offer from Hotspur: 

It is impossible, it cannot be 

The King should keep his word in loving us. 

He will suspect us still and find a time 
To punish this offence in other faults. 

To keep his word is a phrase outside Falstaff’s comprehen- 
sion, for a promise means that at some future moment I might 
have to refuse to do what I wish, and, in Falstaff’s world to 
wish and to do are synonymous. For the same reason, when, 
by promising them redress. Prince John tricks the rebels into 
disbanding their armies and then arrests them, Falstaff will 
not understand why they and all the audience except himself 
are shocked. 

The first words Shakespeare puts into Falstaff’s mouth are, 
“Now Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” to which the Prince 
quite rightly replies, “What the devil hast thou to do with 
the time of day?” In FalstafF s world, every moment is one of 
infinite possibility when anything can be wished. As a spec- 
tator, he will keep hearing the characters use the words time 
and occasion in a sense which will stump him. 

What I know 

Is ruminated, plotted, and set down 
And only stays but to behold the face 
Of that occasion that shall bring it on. 

The purpose you undertake is dangerous, the 
time itself unsorted. ... 

... I will resolve to Scotland. There am I 
Till time and vantage crave my company. 

Of all the characters in the play, the one he will think he 
understands best is the least Falstaff-like of them all. Hotspur, 

194 1 Shakespearian City 

for Hotspur, like himself, appears to obey the impulse of 
the moment and say exactly what he thinks without prudent 
calculation. Both conceal nothing from others, Falstaff be- 
cause he has no mask to put on. Hotspur because he has so 
become his mask that he has no face beneath it. Falstaff says, 
as it were, “I am I. Whatever I do, however outrageous, is of 
infinite importance because I do it.” Hotspur says: “I am Hot- 
spur, the fearless, the honest, plain-spoken warrior. If I should 
ever show fear or tell lies, even white ones, I should cease 
to exist." If Falstaff belonged to the same world as Hotspur, 
one could call him a liar, but, in his own eyes, he is perfectly 
truthful, for, to him, fact is subjective fact, “what I am 
actually feeling and thinking at this moment.” To call him a 
liar is as ridiculous as if, in a play, a character should say, "I 
am Napoleon,” and a member of the audience should cry, 
“You’re not. You’re Sir John Gielgud.” 

In Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, there is a remarkable scene in which 
Peer visits the Troll King. At the entertainment given in his 
honor, animals dance to hideous noises, but Peer behaves 
to them with perfect manners as if they were beautiful girls 
and the music ravishing. After it is over, the Troll King asks 
him: “Now, frankly, tell me what you saw.” Peer replies: 
“What I saw was impossibly ugly” — and then describes the 
scene as the audience had seen it. The Troll King who has 
taken a fancy to him, suggests that Peer would be happier 
as a troll. All that is needed is a little eye operation, after 
which he will really see a cow as a beautiful girl. Peer indig- 
nantly refuses. He is perfecdy willing, he says, to swear 
that a cow is a girl, but to surrender his humanity so that 
he can no longer lie, because he cannot distinguish between 
fact and fiction, that he will never do. By this criterion, neither 
Falstaff nor Hotspur is quite human, Falstaff because he is 
pure troll, Hotspur because he is so lacking in imagination that 
the troll kingdom is invisible to him. 

At first, then, Falstaff will believe that Hotspur is one of 
his own kind, who like himself enjoys putting on an act, 
but then he will hear Hotspur say words which he cannot 

The Prince’s Dog 

[ 195 

. . . time serves wherein you may redeem 
Your banished hcmours and restore yourselves 
Into the good thoughts of the world again. 

In Falstaff’s world, the only value standard is importance, 
that is to say, all he demands from others is attention, all he 
fears is being ignored. Whether others applaud or hiss 
does not matter; what matters is the volume of the hissing 
or the applause. 

Hence, in his soliloquy about honor, his reasoning runs 
something like this: if the consequence of demanding moral 
approval from others is dying, it is better to win their disap- 
proval; a dead man has no audience. 

Since the Prince is a personal friend, Falstaff is, of course, 
a King’s man who thinks it a shame to be on any side but 
one, but his loyalty is like that of those who, out of local 
pride, support one football team rather than another. As a 
member of the audience, his final comment upon the political 
action of the play will be the same as he makes from behind 
the footlights. 

Well, God be thanked for these rebels: they offend 
none but the virtuous. . . . 

A young knave and begging. Is there not employ- 
ment? Doth not the King lack subjects? Do not the rebels 
need soldiers? 

Once upon a time we were all Falstaffs: then we became 
social beings with super-egos. Most of us learn to accept this, 
but there are some in whom the nostalgia for the state of 
innocent self-importance is so strong that they refuse to accept 
adult life and responsibilities and seek some means to become 
again the Falstaffs they once were. The commonest technique 
adopted is the bottle, and, curiously enough, the male drinker 
reveals his intention by developing a drinker’s belly. 

If one visits a bathing beach, one can observe that men 
and women grow fat in different ways. A fat woman exag- 
gerates her femininity; her breasts and buttocks enlarge till 
she comes to look like the Venus of Willendorf. A fat man, 

The Shakespearian City 

196 ] 

on the other hand, looks like a cross between a very young 
child and a pregnant mother. There have been cultures in 
which obesity in women was considered the ideal of sexual 
attraction, but in no culture, so far as I know, has a fat man 
been considered more attractive than a thin one. If my own 
weight and experience give me any authority, I would say 
that fatness in the male is the physical expression of a psycho- 
logical wish to withdraw from sexual competition and, by 
combining mother and child in his own person, to become 
emotionally self-sufficient. The Greeks thought of Narcissus 
as a slender youth but I think they were wrong. I see him as 
a middle-aged man with a corporation, for, however ashamed 
he may be of displaying it in public, in private a man with 
a belly loves it dearly; it may be an unprepossessing child to 
look at, but he has borne it all by himself. 

I do walk here before thee like a sow that hath over- 
whelmed all her little but one. . . . 

I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, 
and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but 
my name. My womb, my womb undoes me. 

Not all fat men are heavy drinkers, but all males who 
drink heavily become fat.* At the same time, the more they 
drink, the less they eat. “O monstrous! But one halfpenny 
worth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack!” exclaims Hal 
on looking at Falstaff’s bill, but he cannot have expected any- 
thing else. Drunkards die, not from the liquid alcohol they 
take so much of, but from their refusal to eat solid food, and 
anyone who had to look after a drunk knows that the only 
way to get enough nourishment into him is to give him liquid 
or mashed-up foods, for he will reject any dish that needs 
chewing. Solid food is to the drunkard a symbolic reminder 
of the loss of the mother’s breast and his ejection from Eden. 

A plague on sighing and grief. It blows a man up like 
a bladder. . . . 

^ All the women I have met who drank heavily were lighter and thinner 
than average. 

The Prince's Dog 

[ 197 

So Falstaff, and popular idiom identifies the kind of griefs 
which have this fattening effect — eating humble pie, swallow- 
ing insults, etc. 

In a recent number of The Paris Review, Mr. Nicholas 
Tucci writes: 

The death song of the drunkard — it may go on for 
thirty years — goes more or less like this. “I was born a 
god, with the whole world in reach of my hands, lie now 
defeated in the gutter. Come and listen: hear what the 
world has done to me.” 

In Vino Veritas is an old saying that has nothing to 
do with the drunkard’s own truth. He has no secrets — 
that is true — but it is not true that his truth may be 
found under the skin of his moral reserve or of his sober 
lies, so that the moment he begins to cross his eyes and 
pour out his heart, anyone may come in and get his fill 
of truth. What happens is exactly the opposite. When 
the drunkard confesses, he makes a careful choice of his 
pet sins: and these are nonexistent. He may be unable 
to distinguish a person from a chair, but never an un- 
profitable lie from a profitable one. How could he see 
himself as a very insignificant entity in a huge world of 
others, when he sees nothing but himself spread over the 
whole universe. “I am alone” is indeed a true cry, but 
it should not be taken literally. 

The drunk is unlovely to look at, intolerable to listen to, and 
his self-pity is contemptible. Nevertheless, as not merely a 
worldly failure but also a willful failure, he is a disturbing 
image for the sober citizen. His refusal to accept the realities 
of this world, babyish as it may be, compels us to take another 
look at this world and reflect upon our motives for accepting 
it. The drunkard’s suffering may be self-inflicted, but it is 
real suffering and reminds us of all the suffering in this 
world which we prefer not to think about because, from the 
moment we accepted this world, we acquired our share of 
responsibility for everything that happens in it. 

When we see Falstaff's gross paunch and red face, we 

198 ] The Shakesfeccrtan City 

are reminded that the body politic of England is not so 
healthy, either. 

The Commonwealth is sick of its own choice. 

Their over-greedy love hath surfeited. . . . 

Thou (beastly feeder) are so full of him 
That thou provokest thyself to cast him up. 

So, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge 
Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard. . . . 

Then you perceive the body of our kingdom 
How foul it is: what rank diseases grow. 

And with what danger near the heart of it. 

It might be expected that we would be revolted at the sight 
and turn our eyes with relief and admiration to the Hero 
Prince. But in fact we aren’t and we don’t. Whenever Falstaif 
is on stage, we have no eyes for Hal. If Shakespeare did orig- 
inally write a part for Falstaff in Henry V, it would not have 
taken pressure from the Cobhams to make him cut it out; 
his own dramatic instinct would have told him that, if Henry 
was to be shown in his full glory, the presence of Falstaff 
would diminish it. 

Seeking for an explanation of why Falstaff affects us as he 
does, I find myself compelled to see Henry IV as possessing, 
in addition to its overt meaning, a parabolic significance. 
Overtly, Falstaff is a Lord of Misrule; parabolically, he is a 
comic symbol for the supernatural order of Charity as con- 
trasted with the temporal order of Justice symbolized by 
Henry of Monmouth. 

Such readings are only possible with drama which, like 
Shakespeare’s, is secular, concerned directly, not with the 
relation of man and God, but with the relations between men. 
Greek tragedy, at least before Euripides, is directly religious, 
concerned with what the gods do to men rather than what 
men do to each other: it presents a picture of human events, 
the causes of which are divine actions. In consequence, a 
Greek tragedy does not demand that we “read” it in the sense 
that we speak of "reading” a face.The ways of the gods may 

The Prittce’s Dog [ i ^ 

be mysterious to human beings but they are not ambiguous. 

There can be no secular drama of any depdi or importance 
except in a culture which recognizes that man has an internal 
history as well as an external; that his actions are partly in re- 
sponse to an objective situation created by his past acts and 
the acts of others, and partly initiated by his subjective need 
to re-create, redefine, and rechoose himself. Surprise and 
revelation are the essence of drama. In Greek tragedy these 
are supplied by the gods; no mortal can foresee how and 
when they will act. But the conduct of men has no element 
of surprise, that is to say, the way in which they react to the 
surprising events which befall them is exactly what one 
would expect. 

A secular drama presupposes that in all which men say and 
do there is a gratuitous element which makes their conduct 
ambiguous and unpredictable. Secular drama, therefore, de- 
mands a much more active role from its audience than a Greek 
tragedy. The audience has to be at one and the same time a 
witness to what is occurring on stage and a subjective partici- 
pant who interprets what he sees and hears. And a secular 
dramatist like Shakespeare who attempts to project the inner 
history of human beings into objective stage action is faced 
with problems which Aeschylus and Sophocles were spared, 
for there are aspects of this inner history which resist and 
sometimes defy manifestation. 

Humility is represented with difficulty — ^when it is 
shovra in its ideal moment, the beholder senses the 
lack of something because he feels that its true ideality 
does not consist in the fact that it is ideal in the moment 
but that it is constant. Romantic love can very well be 
represented in the moment, but conjugal love cannot, 
because an ideal husband is not one who is such once in 
his life but one who every day is such. Courage can 
very well be concentrated in the moment, but not pa- 
tience, precisely for the reason that patience strives with 
time. A king who conquers kingdoms can be represented 
in the moment, but a cross bearer who every day takes 

200 ] The Shakespearian City 

up his cross cannot be represented in art because the 

point is that he does it every day. (Kierkegaard.) 

Let us suppose, then, that a dramatist wishes to show a char- 
acter acting out of the spirit of charity or agape. At first this 
looks easy. Agape requires that we love our enemies, do good 
to those that hate us and forgive those who injure us, and 
this command is unconditional. Surely, all a dramatist has 
to do is to show one human being forgiving an enemy. 

In Measure for Measure, Angelo has wronged Isabella and 
Mariana, and the facts of the wrong become public. Angelo 
repents and demands that the just sentence of death be passed 
on him by the Duke. Isabella and Mariana implore the Duke 
to show mercy. The Duke yields to their prayers and all ends 
happily." I agree with Professor Cbghill’s interpretation of 
Measure for Measure as a parable in which Isabella is an 
image for the redeemed Christian Soul, perfectly chaste and 
loving, whose reward is to become the bride of God; but, to 
my mind, the parable does not quite work because it is im- 
possible to distinguish in dramatic action between the spirit 
of forgiveness and the act of pardon. 

The command to forgive is unconditional: whether my 
enemy harden his heart or repent and beg forgiveness is irrele- 
vant. If he hardens his heart, he does not care whether I 
forgive him or not and it would be impertinent of me to say, 
“I forgive you.” If he repents and asks, “Will you forgive me?” 
the answer, “Yes,” should not express a decision on my part 
but describe a state of feeling which has always existed. On 
the stage, however, it is impossible to show one person for- 
giving another, unless the wrongdoer asks for forgiveness, 
because silence and inaction are undramatic. The Isabella 
we are shown in earlier scenes of Measure for Measure is 
certainly not in a forgiving spirit — she is in a passion of rage 
and despair at Angelo’s injustice — and dramatically she could 
not be otherwise, for then there would be no play. Again, on 
the stage, forgiveness requires manifestation in action, that 
is to say, the one who forgives must be in a position to do 
something for the other which, if he were not forgiving, he 

The Prince's Dog [ 201 

would not do. This means that my enemy must be at my 
mercy; but, to the spirit of charity, it is irrelevant whether 
I am at my enemy’s mercy or he at mine. So long as he is at 
my mercy, forgiveness is indistinguishable from judicial par- 

The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, 
only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can par- 
don, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish. 
If the lawbreaker is stronger than the legal authorities, they 
are powerless to do either. The decision to grant or refuse par- 
don must be governed by prudent calculation — if the wrong- 
doer is pardoned, he will behave better in the future than if 
he were punished, etc. But charity is forbidden to calculate 
in this way: I am required to forgive my enemy whatever the 
effect on him may be. 

One may say that Isabella forgives Angelo and the Duke 
pardons him. But, on the stage, this distinction is invisible 
because, there, power, justice and love are all on the same 
side. Justice is able to pardon what love is commanded to 
forgive. But to love, it is an accident that the power of tem- 
poral justice should be on its side; indeed, the Gospels assure 
us that, sooner or later, they will find themselves in opposi- 
tion and that love must suffer at the hands of justice. 

In King Lear, Shakespeare attempts to show absolute love 
and goodness, in the person of Cordelia, destroyed by the 
powers of this world, but the price he pays is that Cordelia, 
as a dramatic character, is a bore. 

If she is not to be a fake, what she says cannot be poetically 
very impressive nor what she does dramatically very exciting. 

What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent. 

In a play with twenty-six scenes, Shakespeare allows her to 
appear in only four, and from a total of over three thousand 
three hundred lines, he allots to her less than ninety. 

Temporal Justice demands the use of force to quell the un- 
just; it demands prudence, a practical reckoning with time 
and place; and it demands publicity for its laws and its penal- 
ties. But Charity forbids all three — ^we are not to resist evil, 

202 ] The Shakespearian City 

if a man demand our coat we are to give him our cloak also, 
we are to take no thought for the morrow and, while secretly 
fasting and giving alms, we are to appear in public as persons 
who do neither. 

A direct manifestation of charity in secular terms is, there- 
fore, impossible. One form of indirect manifestation employed 
by religious teachers has been through parables in which 
actions which are ethically immoral are made to stand as a 
sign for that which transcends ethics. The Gospel parable of 
the Unjust Steward is one example. These words by a Hasidic 
Rabbi are another: 

I cannot teach you the ten principles of service but 

a little child and a thief can show you what they are. 

From the child you can learn three things; 

He is merry for no particular reason. 

Never for a moment is he idle. 

When he wants something, he demands it vigorously. 

The thief can instruct you in many things. 

He does his service by night. 

If he does not finish what he has set out to do in one 
night, he devotes the next night to it. 

He and all those who work for him, love one another. 

He risks his life for slight gains. 

What he takes has so little value for him that he gives 
up for a very small coin. 

He endures blows and hardships and it matters 
nothing to him. 

He likes his trade and would not exchange it for any 

If a parable of this kind is dramatized, the action must be 
comic, that is to say, the apparently immoral actions of the 
hero must not inflict, as in the actual world they would, real 
suffering upon others. 

Thus, Falstaff speaks of himself as if he were always rob- 
bing travelers. We see him do this once — incidentally, it is not 
Falstaff but the Prince who is the instigator — and the sight 
convinces us that he never has been and never could be a 

The Prince's Dog 

[ 103 

successful highwayman. The money is restolen from him and 
returned to its proper owners; the only sufferer is t^alstaff him- 
self who has been made a fool of. He lives shamelessly on 
credit, but none of his creditors seems to be in serious trouble 
as a result. The Hostess may swear that if he does not pay his 
bill, she will have to pawn her plate and tapestries, but this is 
shown to be the kind of exaggeration habitual to landladies, 
for in the next scene they are still there. What, overtly, is 
dishonesty becomes, parabolically, a sign for a lack of pride, 
humility which acknowledges its unimportance and depend- 
ence upon others. 

Then he rejoices in his reputation as a fornicator with 
whom no woman is safe alone, but the Falstaff on stage is too 
old to fornicate, and it is impossible to imagine him younger. 
All we see him do is defend a whore against a bully, set her 
on his knee and make her cry out of affection and pity. What 
in the real world is promiscuous lust, the treatment of other 
persons as objects of sexual greed, becomes in the comic world 
of play a symbol for the charity that loves all neighbors with- 
out distinction. 

Living off other people’s money and indiscriminate fornica- 
tion are acts of injustice towards private individuals; Falstaff 
is also guilty of injustice to others in their public character as 
citizens. In any war it is not the justice or injustice of either 
side that decides who is to be the victor but the force each can 
command. It is therefore the duty of all who believe in the 
justice of the King’s side to supply him with the best soldiers 
possible. Falstaff makes no attempt to fulfill this duty. Before 
the battle of Shrewsbury, he first conscripts those who have 
most money and least will to fight and then allows them to 
buy their way out, so that he is finally left with a sorry regi- 
ment of “discarded unjust serving men, younger sons to 
younger brothers, revolted tapsters and ostlers trade fallen. . . 
Before the battle of Gaultree Forest, the two most sturdy 
young men. Mouldy and Bullcalf, offer him money and are 
let off, and the weakest. Shadow, Feeble and Wart, taken. 

From the point of view of society this is unjust, but if the 
villagers who are subject to conscription were to be asked. 

204 ] The Shakespearian City 

as private individuals, whether they would rather be treated 
justly or as Falstalf treats them, there is no doubt as to their 
answer. What their betters call just and unjust means nothing 
to them; all they know is that conscription will tear them away 
from their homes and livelihoods with a good chance of 
getting killed or returning maimed "to beg at the town’s end.” 
Those whom Falstalf selects are those with least to lose, dere- 
licts without home or livelihood to whom soldiering at least 
offers a chance of loot. Bullcalf wants to stay with his friends. 
Mouldy has an old mother to look after, Imt Feeble is quite 
ready to go if his friend Wart can go with him. 

FalstalFs neglect of the public interest in favor of private 
concerns is an image for the justice of charity which treats 
each person, not as a cipher, but as a unique person. The 
Prince may justly complain: 

I never did see such pitiful rascals 

but FalstaflFs retort speaks for all the insulted and injured 
of this world: 

Tut tut — good enough to toss, food for powder, food 
for powder. They’ll fit a pit as well as better. Tush, man, 
mortal men, mortal men. . . . 

'These are Falstalf ’s only acts: for the rest, he fritters away 
his time, swigging at the bottle and taking no thought for 
the morrow. As a parable, both the idleness and the drinking, 
the surrender to immediacy and the refusal to accept reality, 
become signs for the Unworldly Man as contrasted widr 
Prince Hal who represents worldliness at its best. 

At his best, the worldly man is one who dedicates his life 
to some public end, politics, science, industry, art. etc. 'The 
end is outside himself, but the choice of end is determined 
by the particular talents with which nature has endowed him, 
and the proof that he has chosen rightly is worldly success. 
To dedicate one’s life to an end for which one is not endowed 
is madness, the madness of Don Quixote. Strictly speaking, 
he does not desire fame for himself, but to achieve something 
which merits fame. Because his end is worldly, that is, in the 

The Prince’s Dog 

[ 205 

public domain — to marry the girl of one’s choice, or to become 
a good parent, are private, not worldly, ends — the personal life 
and its satisfactions are, for the worldly man, of secondary 
importance and, should they ever conflict with his vocation, 
must be sacrificed. The worldly man at his best knows that 
other persons exist and desires that they should — a statesman 
has no wish to establish justice among tables and chairs — ^but 
if it is necessary to the achievement of his end to treat certain 
persons as if they were things, then, callously or regretfully, 
he will. What distinguishes him from the ordinary criminal 
is that the criminal lacks the imagination to conceive of others 
as being persons like himself; when he sacrifices others, he 
feels no guilt because, to the criminal, he is the only person 
in a world of things. What distinguishes both the worldly 
man and the criminal from the wicked man is their lack of 
malice. The wicked man is not worldly, hut anti-worldly. His 
conscious end is nothing less than the destruction of others. 
He is obsessed by hatred at his knowledge that other persons 
exist besides himself and cannot rest until he has reduced them 
all to the status of things. 

But it is not always easy to distinguish the worldly man 
from the criminal or the wicked man by observing their be- 
havior and its results. It can happen, for instance, that, despite 
his intention, a wicked man does good. Don John in Much 
Ado About Nothing certainly means nothing but harm to 
Claudio and Hero, yet it is thanks to him that Claudio obtains 
insight into his own shortcomings and becomes, what pre- 
viously he was not, a fit husband for Hero. To the outward 
eye, however different their subjective intentions, both Harry 
of Monmouth and lago deceive and destroy. Even in their 
speech one cannot hdp noticing a certain resemblance be- 

So when this loose behaviour I throw off 
And pay the debt I never promised. 

By how much better than my word I am. 

I’ll so offend to make offence a skill 
Redeeming time when men least think I will. 

The Shakespearian City 

206 ] 


From when my outward action doth demonstrate 
The native act and figure of my heart 
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after 
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve 
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. . . . 

and the contrast of both to Sonnet 121: 

No, I am that I am; and they that level 
At my abuses reckon up their own. 

I may be straight though they themselves be bevel. 

Falstaff is perfectly willing to tell the world: “I am that 
I am, a drunken old failure.” Hal cannot jeopardize his career 
by such careless disclosure but must always assume whatever 
manner is politic at the moment. To the degree that we have 
worldly ambitions, FalstafFs verdict on the Prince strikes 

Thou art essentially mad without seeming so. 

Falstaff never really does anything, but he never stops talk- 
ing, so that the impression he makes on the audience is not 
of idleness but of infinite energy. He is never tired, never 
bored, and until he is rejected he radiates happiness as Hal 
radiates power, and this happiness without apparent cause, 
this untiring devotion to making others laugh becomes a comic 
image for a love which is absolutely self-giving. 

Laughing and loving have certain properties in common. 
Laughter is contagious but not, like physical force, irresistible. 
A man in a passion of any kind cannot be made to laugh; if 
he laughs, it is a proof that he has already mastered his pas- 
sion. Laughter is an action only in a special sense. Many 
kinds of action can cause laughter, but the only kind of 
action that laughter causes is more laughter; while we laugh, 
time stops and no other kind of action can be contemplated. 
In rage or hysteria people sometimes are said to “laugh” but 
no one can confuse the noises they make with the sound of 

The Prince’s Dog 

[ 207 

real laughter. Real laughter is absolutely una^essive; we 
cannot wish people or things we find amusing to be other 
than they are; we do not d^ire them to change them, far 
less hurt or destroy them. An angry and dangerous mob is 
rendered harmless by the orator who can succeed in making 
it laugh. Real laughter is always, as we say, "disarming.” 

Falstaff makes the same impression on us that the Sinner of 
Lublin made upon his' rabbi. 

In Lublin lived a great sinner. Whenever he went to 
talk to the rabbi, the rabbi readily consented and con- 
versed with him as if he were a man of integrity and one 
who was a close friend. Many of the hassidim were an- 
noyed at this and one said to the other: “Is it possible that 
our rabbi who has only to look once into a man’s face to 
know his life from first to last, to know the very origin 
of his soul, does not see that diis fellow is a sinner? 
And if he does see it, that he considers him worthy to 
speak to and associate with.” Finally they summoned 
up courage to go to the rabbi himself with their ques- 
tion. He answered them: "I know all about him as well 
as you. But you know how I love gaiety and hate dejec- 
tion. And this man is so great a sinner. Others repent the 
moment they have sinned, are sorry for a moment, and 
then return to their folly. But he knows no regrets and 
no doldrums, and lives in his happiness as in a tower. 
And it is the radiance of his happiness that overwhelms 
my heart.” 

FalstafF s happiness is almost an impregnable tower, but not 
quite. "I am that I am” is not a complete self-description; he 
must also add — "The young prince hath misled me. I am the 
fellow with the great belly, and he is my dog.” 

The Christian God is not a self-sufficient being like Aris- 
totle’s First Cause, but a God who creates a world which he 
continues to love although it refuses to love him in return. 
He appears in this world, not as Apollo or Aphrodite might 
appear, disguised as man so that no mortal should recognize 
his divinity, but as a real man who openly claims to be God. 

2o8 ] The Shakespearian City 

And the consequence is inevitable. The highest religious and 
temporal authorities condemn Him as a blasphemer and a 
Lord of Misrule, as a Bad Companion for mankind. Inevitable 
because, as Richelieu said, “The salvation of States is in this 
world,” and history has not as yet provided us with any 
evidence that the Prince of this world has changed his char- 


Were some fanatic to learn the whole of Proust by heart, word 
for word, and then try reciting it to an audience in a drawing 
room after dinner, the chances are, I fancy, that within half 
an hour most of the audience would have fallen asleep, and 
their verdict upon Remembrance of Things Past would be 
that it was a boring and incomprehensible story. The difficulty 
of judging fairly a printed folk tale, still more a collection of 
tales'^ that were never intended to be grasped through the 
eye, is just as great. Our feeling for orally transmitted lit- 
erature is distorted by the peculiar nature of the only literature 
of this class that is still alive — for us the spoken tale is the un- 
printable tale — ^but it is possible, even in the smoking-room 
story, to perceive some of the characteristics common to all 
storytelling. To begin with, both the occasion of the telling and 
the voice and gestures of the teller are important elements in 
the effect; the story that has delighted us on one occasion may, 
in a different context and told by a different speaker, fail 
utterly to amuse. Then, the ear is much slower in compre- 
hending than the eye, far less avid of novelty, and far more 
appreciative of rhythmical repetition. 

Folk tales have also suffered from certain preconceived 
ideas on the part of the general public. They are commonly 
thought of as being either entertainment for children or docu- 
ments for adult anthropologists and students of comparative 
religion. Children enjoy them, it is true, but that is no reason 

* The Borzoi Book of French Folk Tates, edited by Paul Delarue. 

210 ] The Shakespearian City 

why CTownups, for whom they were primarily intended, 
should assume that they are childish. They undoubtedly con- 
tain elements drawn from ancient rituals and myths, but a 
knowledge of such things is no more essential to appreciating 
them than a knowledge of the reading and personal experience 
of a modem novelist is essential to enjoying his novels. 

A religious rite is a serious matter, an act that must be done 
in exactly the right way in order to secure supernatural aid, 
without which the crops will fail and men die. A myth almost 
always contains playful elements, but it claims to answer a 
serious question — how did such-and-such come to be? — and 
to some degree or other demands to be believed. But a tale is 
to be told only if someone wishes to hear it, and the one 
question it presupposes is, “How are we to spend a pleasant 
evening?” As the soldier-narrator of “John-of-the-Bear” says: 

I go through a forest where there is no woods, through 
a river where there is no water, through a village where 
there is no house. I knock at a door and everybody 
answers me. The more I tell you, the more I shall lie to 
you. I’m not paid to tell you the truth. 

“The Doctor and His Pupil” contains a motif common to 
many folk tales — that of one character pursuing another 
through a series of magical metamorphoses. The hunted turns 
into a hare, whereupon the hunter turns into a dog, where- 
upon the hare becomes a lark, whereupon the dog becomes an 
eagle, and so on. The primal source of this idea is probably 
a ritual fertility dance in which the twelve months were 
symbolically mimed. In such a rite, if it existed, the symbolical 
animals would be fixed in number and kind and the worshipers 
would know in advance what they were, but a tale that makes 
use of the notion can use any beasts, and any number of them 
it pleases, provided that the pairs logically match. If the story- 
teller makes the hunted one a hare, he cannot make the hunter 
a donkey; if he wants the hunter to be a donkey, then he must 
make the hunted something like a carrot. The pleasure of the 
audience is that of suspense, pattern and surprise, so that 
at each transformation it wonders, “How will the hunted get 

Interlude: The Wish Game 

[ 211 

out of that one?” Similarly, the motif of the Viigin and the 
Seven-Headed Dragon in “The Three Dogs and the Dragon” 
and “The Miller's Three Sons” may well be derived from 
the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, but there is no apparent 
attempt to relate these tales to any historical event or person. 
Questions of religion and history, however interesting and 
important, are not the business of the literary critic. He can 
only ask the questions he would ask of any work of literature, 
e.g., what kind of writing is this, as compared with other 
kinds? What are its special virtues and its special limitations? 
Judged by its own intentions, what makes one tale or one 
version of a tale better or worse than another? 

One characteristic that clearly differentiates the fairy tale 
from other kinds of narrative is the nature of the fairy-tale 
hero. The epic hero is one who, thanks to his exceptional gifts, 
is able to perform great deeds of which the average man is 
incapable. He is of noble (often divine) descent, stronger, 
braver, better looking, more skillful than everybody else. A 
stranger meeting him in the street would immediately recog- 
nize him as a hero. Some of his adventures may be sexual, he 
may marry, but such matters are incidental to his main object, 
which is to win immortal fame. Even when he is transformed 
into the knight-errant in whose life the ladies play a great 
role, his honor is still more important than his love. 

Like the epic hero, the fairy story hero performs great and 
seemingly impossible deeds, but there the resemblance ends. 
He may be by birth a prince, but, if so, he is, as it were, a 
prince of the first generation, for he never possesses, as the 
epic hero always does, a genealogical tree. More commonly, 
however, he is the child of poor parents and starts his life 
at the very bottom of the social scale. He is not recognizable 
as a hero except in the negative sense — that he is the one who 
to the outward eye appears, of all people, the least likely to 
succeed. Often he is a child, lacking even the strength and 
wit of the ordinary adult, and nearly always his relatives and 
neighbors consider him stupid and lacking in ambition. The 
virtue by which he succeeds when others fail is the very un- 
militant virtue of humble good nature. He is the one who 

212 ] The Shakespearian City 

stops to share his crust with the old beggar woman or free the 
trapped beast, thereby securing magical aid, when his proud 
and impatient rivals pass by and in consequence come to grief. 
The fairy-story world is purely Calvinist. That is to say, the 
hero’s deeds cannot be called his; without magical assistance 
he would be totally helpless. Officially, he is a lover, not a 
warrior, who desires glory and treasure only in order that he 
may deserve the hand of the princess, but no fairy-story char- 
acter, either in speech or in behavior, shows real erotic feeling. 
We find neither outright sexual passion nor sentimental 
Frauendienst. Fairy-story “love” is not an emotion but a formal 
principle, one of the rules by which the story game is played. 
If the fairy-story hero differs from the epic hero in having no 
visible arete, he differs also from the hero of the modern novel 
in that he has no hidden qualities that are in time revealed. 
As a character, he is the same person at the end that he was 
at the beginning; all that has changed is his status. Nothing 
that happens to him can be called personally significant in 
the sense that, thanks to it, his awareness of himself is 

Since the characters in a fairy story are either good or bad, 
benevolent or malevolent — it is rare for a bad character to 
repent and unknown for a good one to become bad — they can- 
not be said to be tempted. There are occasions when the hero 
(or heroine), though warned not to do something — not to pick 
up a wig or enter a particular room — ignores the warning 
and gets into trouble, but the prohibited act is never, in itself, 
immoral. There is only one fairy-tale motif, to my knowledge, 
that contains an element of inner conflict: the theme of 
Grimm’s “Faithful John” and M. Delarue’s “Father Roque- 
laure.” The Prince’s loyal servant learns by chance that, in 
order to save his master, he must do things which will appear 
to be evil, and that if he explains the reason he will be turned 
to stone. He does them and — under threat of death or because 
he cannot bear his master’s displeasure — he tells and is turned 
to stone. The Prince then discovers that to restore his faithful 
servant he must sacrifice his own child. 

In other kinds of fiction, the plot evolves through the clash 

Interlude: The Wish Game 

[ 2,13 

between fate or chance on the one side and will ^nd desire on 
the other; the fairy story is peculiar in that the main cause of 
any event is a wish. A desire is a real and given experience 
of a human individual in a particular historical context. 1 am 
not free to choose what desire I shall feel, nor can I choose 
the goal that will satisfy it; if the desire is real, it proposes its 
own satisfaction. When I desire, I know what I want. I am 
then free to choose either to remain in a state of unsatisfied 
desire by refusing to assent to its demands or to use my reason 
and wall to satisfy it. A wish, on the other hand, is not given; 
I am free to wish anything I choose, but the cause of all wishes 
is the same — that which is should not be. If I say, “I desire 
to eat,” I do not mean, “I desire not to be hungry,” for if I 
were not hungry I should not desire to eat. When a scolded 
child says to a parent, “I wish you were dead,” he does not 
mean what he actually says; he only means, “I wish I were 
not what I am, a child being scolded by you,” and a hundred 
other wishes would have done equally well. If the young heir 
to the fortune of a disagreeable old aunt says, “I wish she 
were dead,” he may really desire her death, but his wish does 
not express this desire; its real content is, “I wish that my 
conscience and the law did not, as they do, forbid murder.” 
We can wish anything we choose precisely because all wishes 
are equally impossible, for all substitute an imaginary present 
for the real one. A world in which all wishes were magically 
granted would be a world without desire or will, for every 
moment of time would be disjunct and there would be no way 
of distinguishing between animate and inanimate beings, ani- 
mals and men. 

Wishing is not the sole cause of events in the fairy tale but 
the license it is given prevents the fairy tale from arousing any 
strong emotions in the audience. This, however, is one of the 
peculiar pleasures the fairy story affords — that it can take 
images of beautiful maidens or cannibalistic ogres who, in our 
dreams, arouse violent emotions of desire or terror, or it can 
inflict horrible punishments on the wicked (like rolling them 
downhill in a barrel full of nails) which in real life would be 
acts of sadism, and make them all 'playful. 

214 ] The Shcihes'peariait City 

A game, of course, must have rules if it is not to be purely 
arbitrary and meaningless, and the characters in the fairy tale 
have a “fate” to which even their wishes must submit. They 
must obey, for instance, the laws of language. We can lie in 
language, that is to say, manipulate the world as we wish, but 
the lie must make sense as a grammatical proposition: 

“What are you doing there, good woman?” he asked. 

“I’d like to take some sunshine home, a whole wheel- 
barrowful, but it’s difficult, for as soon as I get it in the 
shade it vanishes.” 

“What do you want a wheelbarrowful of sunshine 

“It’s to warm my little boy who is at home half dead 
from cold.” 

The other law, so often introduced in the fairy tale, which 
all must obey is the law of numerical series. The hero who is 
set three tasks cannot wish them into two or four. 

It would be misleading to say that because the fairy tale 
world is a fantastic one, such literature is “escapist.” A work 
may justly be condemned as escapist only if it claims to portray 
the real world when in fact its portrait is false. But the fairy 
story never pretends to be a picture of the real world, and 
even if its audience were to respond with the feeling, “How I 
wish we could live in this world instead of the world we have 
to live in” (and I very much doubt that any audience ever 
felt this way), it would always know that such a wish was 
impossible. The kind of enjoyment the fairy tale can provide 
is similar, I believe, to that provided by the poems of Mallarm^ 
or by abstract painting. 

M. Delarue’s collection of French folk tales includes versions 
of several stories that are also to be found in Grimm. A com- 
parison of the one with the other may help to show the 
qualities we look for in a folk tale and by which we judge it: 

The Lost Children Hansel and Gretel 
In their respective openings, the German version is superior 
both in richness of detail and in dramatic suspense. 'The 

Interlude: The Wish Game [215 

French version lacks the conflict between the bad mother and 
the kind but weak father, and the children dd not ot^erhear 
their conversation, so the drama of the pebbles and the 
crumbs is lacking. The French children climb a tree, see m 
white house and a red house, and choose to go to the red 
house, which, of course, turns out to be the wrong choice, 
but we never learn what the white house is. This is a violation 
of one of the laws of storytelling, namely, that everything 
introduced must be accounted for. In the central part of the 
story, the French version replaces the witch in her edible 
house with the Devil and his wife on an ordinary farm, and 
the children succeed in killing the Devil’s wife while he is 
taking a walk. There is a loss, perhaps, in beauty of imagery 
but a gain in character interest. In its conclusion, the French 
version is much superior. In the German version, Hansel and 
Gretel merely wander through the forest till they come to a 
river, which they are ferried across by a duck. The presence 
and nature of the duck are not explained, nor is any reason 
given why there should be a river between them and their 
home that they did not have to cross when they set out. But 
in the French version, the Devil pursues the runaways and his 
pursuit is punctuated by a ritual verse dialogue between him 
and those he meets. They all fool him and finally cause him 
to be drowned in a river that he is told the children have 
crossed, though in fact they have simply gone home. 

The Godchild of the Fairy in the Tower Rapunzel 
In the German version, the witch learns about the Prince 
from the girl herself, in the French from a talking bitch she 
has left to keep watch on the girl, a variation that is more 
interesting and more logical. But the unhappy ending of the 
French version — the witch turns the girl into a frog and grows 
a pig’s snout on the Prince — seems to me an artistic mistake. 
In the playful world of the fairy story, all problems, including 
that of moral justice, must be solved. When a fairy story ends 
unhappily, we do not feel that we have been told an un- 
pleasant truth; we merely feel that the story has been broken 
off in the middle. 

2i6 ] The Shakespearum City 

The Story of Grandmother Little Red Riding Hood 
M. Delarue tells us in his notes that the Grimm story is 
largely derived from Perrault. The French oral version he 
prints is infinitely superior to either, and a model of what a 
folk tale should 

There was once a woman who had some bread, and 
she said to her daughter: “You are going to carry a hot 
loaf and a bottle of milk to your grandmother.” 

The little girl departed. At the crossroads she met the 
hzou, who said to her: “Where are you going?” 

“I’m taking a hot loaf and a bottle of milk to my grand- 

“What road are you taking,” said the hzou, “the 
Needles Road or the Pins Road?” 

“The Needles Road,” said the little girl. 

“Well, I shall take the Pins Road.” 

The little girl enjoyed herself, picking up needles. 
Meanwhile the hzou arrived at her grandmother's, killed 
her, put some of her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her 
blood on the shelf. The girl arrived and knocked at the 

“Push the door,” said the hzou, "it’s closed with a wet 

“Hello, Grandmother; I’m bringing you a hot loaf and 
a bottle of milk.” 

“Put them in the pantry. You eat the meat that’s in it 
and drink a bottle of wine that is on the shelf.” 

As she ate there was a little cat that said: "A slut is she 
who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her grand- 

“Undress, my child,” said the hzou, “and come and 
sleep beside me.” 

"Where should I put my apron?” 

“Throw it in the fire, my child; you don’t need it any 

And she asked where to put all the other garments, 
the bodice, the dress, the skirt, and the hose, and the 

Interlude: The Wish Game 

[ ai7 

wolf replied: “Throw them into the fire, my child; you 
will need them no more.” 

“Oh, Grandmother, how hairy you are!” 

“It’s to keep me warmer, my child.” 

'XDh, Grandmother, those long nails you have!” 

“It's to scratch me better, my child.” 

“Oh, Grandmother, those big shoulders you have!” 

“All the better to carry kincUing from the woods, my 

“Oh, Grandmother, those big ears you have!” 

“All the better to hear with, my child.” 

“Oh, Grandmother, that big mouth you have!” 

“All the better to eat you with, my child!” 

“Oh, Grandmother, I need to go outside to relieve my- 

“Do it in the bed, my child." 

“No, Grandmother, I want to go outside,” 

“All right, but don’t stay long.” 

The bzou tied a woollen thread to her feet and let her 
go out, and when the little girl was outside she tied the 
end of the string to a big plum tree in the yard. The hzou 
got impatient and said: “Are you making cables?” 

When he became aware that no one answered him, he 
jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had 
escaped. He followed her, but he arrived at the house just 
at the moment that she was safely inside. 


The •possible redemption from the predicament 
of irreversibility — of being unable to undo what 
one has done — is the faculty of forgiving. The 
remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic un- 
certainty of the future, is contained in the faculty 
to make and keep promises. Both faculties de- 
pend upon plurality, on the presence and acting 
of others, for no man can forgive himself and no 
one can be bound by a promise made only to 


The England which Shakespeare presents in Richard 11 and 
Henry IV is a society in which wealth, that is to say, social 
power, is derived from ownership of land, not from accumu- 
lated capital. The only person who is in need of money is the 
King who must equip troops to defend the country against 
foreign foes. If, like Richard II, he is an unjust king, he spends 
the money which should have been spent on defense in main- 
taining a luxurious and superfluous court. Economically, the 
country is self-sufficient, and production is for use, not profit. 
The community-forming bond in this England is either the 
family tie of common blood which is given by nature or the 
feudal tie of lord and vassal created by personal oath. Both 

Brothers Gr Others [ 219 

are commitments to individuals and both are lifelong commit- 
ments. But this type of community tie is presented as being ill 
suited to the needs of England as a functioning society. If 
England is to function properly as a society, the community, 
based on personal loyalty must be converted into a community 
united by a common love of impersonal justice, that is to say, 
of the King’s Law which is no respecter of persons. We are 
given to understand that in Edward Ill’s day, this kind of 
community already existed, so that the family type of com- 
munity is seen as a regression. Centuries earlier, a war between 
Wessex and Mercia, for example, would have been regarded as 
legitimate as a war between England and France, but now a 
conflict between a Percy and a Bolingbroke is regarded as a 
civil war, illegitimate because between brothers. It is possible, 
therefore, to apply a medical analogy to England and speak of 
a sick body politic, because it is as obvious who are aliens and 
who ought to be brothers as it is obvious which cells belong 
to my body and which to the body of another. War, as such, 
is not condemned but is still considered, at least for the gentry, 
a normal and enjoyable occupation like farming. Indeed peace, 
as such, carries with it the pejorative associations of idleness 
and vice. 

Now all the youth of England are on fire 
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies. 

Now thrive the Armourers and Honour’s thought 
Reigns solely in the breast of every man. 

They sell the pasture now to buy the horse. 

The only merchants who appear in Henry IV are the “Bacon- 
fed Knaves and Fat Chuffs” whom Falstaff robs, and they are 
presented as contemptible physical cowards. 

In The Merchant of Venice and Othello Shakespeare de- 
picts a very different kind of society. Venice does not produce 
anything itself, either raw materials or manufactured goods. 
Its existence depends upon the financial profits which can be 
made by international trade, 

. . . the trade and profit of the city 
Consisteth of all nations 

220 ] The Shakespearian City 

that is to say, on buying cheaply here and selling dearly there, 
and its wealth lies in its accumulated money capital. Money 
has ceased to be simply a convenient medium of exchange and 
.has become a form of social power which can be gained or lost. 
Such a mercantile society is international and cosmopolitan; 
it does not distinguish between the brother and the alien other 
than on a basis of blood or religion — from the point of view 
of society, customers are brothers, trade rivals others. But 
Venice is not simply a mercantile society; it is also a city in- 
habited by various communities with different loves — Gentiles 
and Jews, for example — ^who do not regard each other per- 
sonally as brothers, but must tolerate each other’s existence 
because both are indispensable to the proper functioning of 
their society, and this toleration is enforced by the laws of the 
Venetian state. 

A change in the nature of wealth from landownership to 
money capital radically alters the social conception of time. 
The wealth produced by land may vary from year to year — 
there are good harvests and bad — ^but, in the long run its 
average yield may be counted upon. Land, barring disposses- 
sion by an invader or confiscation by the State, is held by a 
family in perpetuity. In consequence, the social conception of 
time in a landowning society is cyclical — the future is expected 
to be a repetition of the past. But in a mercantile society time 
is conceived of as unilinear forward movement in which the 
future is always novel and unpredictable. (The unpredictable 
event in a landowning society is an Act of God, that is to say, 
it is not "natural” for an event to be unpredictable.) The mer- 
chant is constantly taking risks — if he is lucky, he may make a 
fortune, if he is unlucky he may lose everything. Since, in a 
mercantile society, social power is derived from money, the 
distribution of power within it is constantly changing, which 
has the effect of weakening reverence for the past; who one's 
distant ancestors were soon ceases to be of much social im- 
portance. TTie oath of lifelong loyalty is replaced by the con- 
tract which binds its signatories to fulfill certain specific 
promises by a certain specific future date, after which their 
commitment to each other is over. 

Brothers & Others 

[ 221 

The action of The Merchant of Venice takes place in two 
locations, Venice and Belmont, which are so different in char- 
acter that to produce the play in a manner which will not blur 
this contrast and yet preserve a unity is very difficult. If the 
spirit of Belmont is made too predominant, then Antonio and 
Shylock will seem irrelevant, and vice versa. In Henry IV, 
Shakespeare intrudes Falstaff, who by nature belongs to the 
world of opera huffa, into the historical world of political 
chronicle with which his existence is incompatible, and 
thereby, consciously or unconsciously, achieves the effect of 
calling in question the values of military glory and temporal 
justice as embodied in Henry of Monmouth. In The Merchant 
of Venice he gives us a similar contrast — the romantic fairy 
story world of Belmont is incompatible with the historical 
reality of money-making Venice — but this time what is called 
in question is the claim of Belmont to be the Great Good 
Place, the Earthly Paradise. Watching Henry IV, we become 
convinced that our aesthetic sympathy with Falstaff is a pro- 
founder vision than our ethical judgment which must side 
with Hal. Watching The Merchant of Venice, on the other 
hand, we are compelled to acknowledge that the attraction 
which we naturally feel towards Belmont is highly question- 
able. On that account, I think The Merchant of Venice must 
be classed among Shakespeare's “Unpleasant Plays.” 

Omit Antonio and Shylock, and the play becomes a romantic 
fairy tale like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The world of 
the fairy tale is an unambiguous, unproblematic world in 
which there is no contradiction between outward appearance 
and inner reality, a world of being, not becoming. A character 
may be temporarily disguised — the unlovely animal is really 
the Prince Charming under a spell, the hideous old witch 
transforms herself into a lovely young girl to tempt the hero — 
but this is a mask, not a contradiction: the Prince is really 
handsome, the witch really hideous. A fairy story character 
may sometimes change, but, if so, the change is like a muta- 
tion; at one moment he or she is this kind of person, at the 
next he is transformed into that kind. It is a world in which 

222 J The Shakespearian City 

people are either good or bad by nature; occasionally a bad 
character repents, but a good character never becomes bad. It 
is meaningless therefore to ask why a character in a fairy tale 
acts as he does because his nature will only allow him to act 
in one way. It is a world in which, ultimately, good fortune 
is the sign of moral goodness, ill fortune of moral badness. The 
good are beautiful, rich and speak with felicity, the bad are 
ugly, poor and speak crudely. 

In real life we can distinguish between two kinds of choice, 
the strategic and the personal. A strategic choice is conditioned 
by a future goal which is already known to the chooser. I wish 
to catch a certain train which will be leaving in ten minutes. 
I can either go by subway or take a taxi. It is the rush hour, 
so I have to decide which I believe will get me sooner to the 
station. My choice may turn out to be mistaken, but neither 
I nor an observer will have any difficulty in understanding the 
choice I make. But now and. again, I take a decision which is 
based, not on any calculation of its future consequences, for I 
cannot tell what they will be, but upon my immediate convic- 
tion that, whatever the consequences, I must do this now. How- 
ever well I know myself, I can never understand completely 
why I take such a decision, and to others it will always seem 
mysterious. The traditional symbol in Western Literature for 
this kind of personal choice is the phenomenon of falling-in-love. 
But in the fairy-tale world, what appear to be the personal 
choices of the characters are really the strategic choices of the 
storyteller, for within the tale the future is predestined. We 
watch Portia’s suitors choosing their casket, but we know in 
advance that Morocco and Arragon cannot choose the right 
one and that Bassanio cannot choose the wrong one, and we 
know this, not only from what we know of their characters but 
also from their ordinal position in a series, for the fairy-tale 
world is ruled by magical numbers. Lovers are common 
enough in fairy tales, but love appears as a pattern-forming 
principle rather than sexual passion as we e.xperience it in 
the historical world. The fairy tale cannot tolerate intense 
emotions of any kind, because any intense emotion has tragic 
possibilities, and even the possibility of tragedy is excluded 
from the fairy tale. It is possible to imagine the serious passion 

Brothers ^ Others 

[ 223 

of Romeo and Juliet having a happy ending instead of a tragic 
one, but it is impossible to imagine either of them in Obeion’s 
Wood or the Forest of Arden. 

The fairy tale is hospitable to black magicians as well as to 
white; ogres, witches, bogeys are constantly encountered who 
have their temporary victories but in the end are always van- 
quished by the good and banished, leaving Arcadia to its un- 
sullied innocent joy where the good live happily ever after. 
But the malevolence of a wicked character in a fairy tale is a 
given premise; their victims, that is to say, never bear any 
responsibility for the malice, have never done the malevolent 
one an injury. The Devil, by definition malevolent without a 
cause, is presented in the medieval miracle plays as a fairy- 
story bogey, never victorious but predestined to be cheated of 
his prey. 

Recent history has made it utterly impossible for the most 
unsophisticated and ignorant audience to ignore the historical 
reality of the Jews and think of them as fairy-story bogeys with 
huge noses and red wigs. An Elizabethan audience undoubt- 
edly still could — very few of them had seen a Jew — and, if 
Shakespeare had so wished, he could have made Shylock 
grotesquely wicked like the Jew of Malta. The star actors who, 
from the eighteenth century onwards have chosen to play the 
role, have not done so out of a sense of moral duty in order to 
combat anti-Semitism, but because their theatrical instinct told 
them that the part, played seriously, not comically, offered 
them great possibilities. 

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, as much a 
“problem” play as one by Ibsen or Shaw. The question of the 
immorality or morality of usury was a sixteenth century issue 
on which both the theologians and the secular authorities were 
divided. Though the majority of medieval theologians had con- 
demned usury, there had been, from the beginning, divergence 
of opinion as to the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy, 
XXIII, w 19-20: 

Thou shall not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of 

money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent 

224 ] Shakespearian City 

upon usury: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon 

and Leviticus XXV, w 35-37 which proscribe the taking of 
usury, not only from a fellow Jew, but also from the stranger 
living in their midst and under their protection. 

Some Christian theologians had interpreted this to mean 
that, since the Christians had replaced the Jews as God’s 
Chosen, they were entitled to exact usury from non-Chris- 

Who is your brother? He is your sharer in nature, co-heir 
in grace, every people, which, first, is in the faith, then 
under the Roman Law. Who, then, is the stranger? the 
foes of God’s people. From him, demand usury whom 
you rightly desire to harm, against whom weapons are 
lawfully carried. Upon him usury is legally imposed. 
Where there is the right of war, there also is the right of 
usury. (sT. Ambrose.) 

Several centuries later, St. Bernard of Siena, in a statement of 
which the sanctity seems as doubtful as the logic, takes St. 
Ambrose’s argument even further. 

Temporal goods are given to men for the worship of the 
true God and the Lord of the Universe. When, there- 
fore, the worship of God does not exist, as in the case of 
God’s enemies, usury is lawfully exacted, because this is 
not done for the sake of gain, but for the sake of the 
Faith; and the motive is brotherly love, namely, that 
God’s enemies may be weakened and so return to Him; 
and further because the goods they have do not belong to 
them, since they are rebels against the true faith; they 
shall therefore devolve upon the Christians. 

'The majority, however, starting from the Gospel, command 
that we are to treat all men, even our enemies, as brothers, 
held that the Deuteronomic permission was no longer valid, 
so that under no circumstances was usury permissible. Thus, 

^N.B. For the quotations which follow, I am indebted to Benjamin 
Nelson’s fascinating book The Idea of Usury, Princeton University Press. 

Brothers Gr Others 

[ 225 

St. Thomas Aquinas, who was also, no doubt, influenced by 
Aristotle’s conaemnation of usury, says: 

The Jews were forbidden to take usury from their 
brethren, i.e., from others Jews. By this we are given to 
understand that to take usury from any man is simply 
evil, because we ought to treat every man as our neighbor 
and brother, especially in the state of the Gospel whereto 
we are called. They were permitted, however, to take 
usury from foreigners, not as though it were lawful, but 
in order to avoid a greater evil, lest to wit, through avarice 
to which they were prone, according to Isaiah LVI, VII, 
they should take usury from Jews, who were worshippers 
of God. 

On the Jewish side, talmudic scholars had some interesting 
interpretations. Rashi held that the Jewish debtor is forbidden 
to pay interest to a fellow Jew, but he may pay interest to a 
Gentile. Maimonides, who was anxious to prevent Jews 
from being tempted into idolatry by associating with Gentiles, 
held that a Jew might borrow at usury from a Gentile, but 
should not make loans to one, on the ground that debtors are 
generally anxious to avoid their creditors, but creditors are 
obliged to seek the company of debtors. 

Had Shakespeare wished to show Shylock the usurer in the 
most unfavorable light possible, he could have placed him in 
a medieval agricultural society, where men b^ome debtors 
through misfortunes, like a bad harvest or sickness for which 
they are not responsible, but he places him in a mercantile 
society, where the role played by money is a very different 

When Antonio says: 

I neither lend nor bonow 
By taking or by giving of excess 

he does not mean that, if he goes into partnership with an- 
other merchant contributing, say, a thousand ducats to their 
venture, and their venture makes a profit, he only asks for 
a thousand ducats hack. He is a merchant and the Aristotelian 

226 ] The Shdkesfearian City 

argument that money is barren and cannot breed money, 
which he advances to Shylock, is invalid in his own case. 

This change in the role of money had already been recog- 
nized by both Catholic and Protestant theologians. Calvin, 
for example, had come to the conclusion that the Deuteronomic 
injunction had been designed to meet a particular political 
situation which no longer existed. 

The law of Moses is political and does not obligate us 
beyond what equity and the reason of humanity suggest. 
There is a difference in the political union, for the situa- 
tion in which God placed the Jews and many circum- 
stances permitted them to trade conveniently among 
themselves without usuries. Our union is entirely differ- 
ent. Therefore I do not feel that usuries are forbidden 
to us simply, except in so far as they are opposed to 
equity and charity. 

The condemnation of usury by Western Christendom cannot 
be understood except in relation to the severity of its legal 
attitude, inherited from Roman Law, towards the defaulting 
debtor. The pound of flesh story has a basis in historical fact 
for, according to the Law of the Twelve Tables, a defaulting 
debtor could be torn to pieces alive. In many medieval con- 
tracts the borrower agreed, in the case of default, to pay 
double the amount of the loan as a forfeit, and imprisonment 
for debt continued into the nineteenth century. It was possible 
to consider interest on a loan immoral because the defaulting 
debtor was regarded as a criminal, that is to say, an exception 
to the human norm, so that lending was thought of as nor- 
mally entailing no risk. One motive which led the theologians 
of the sixteenth century to modify the traditional theories 
about usury and to regard it as a necessary social evil rather 
than as a mortal sin was their fear of social revolution and 
die teachings of the Anabaptists and other radical Utopians. 
These, starting from the same premise of Universal Brother- 
hood which had been the traditional ground for condemning 
usury, drew the conclusion that private property was unchris- 
tian, that Christians should share all their goods in common. 

Brothers & Others 

[ 227 

so that the relation of creditor to debtor would be abolished. 
Thus, Luther, who at first had accused Catholic theologians 
of being lax towards the sin of usury, by 1524, was giving this 
advice to Prince Frederick of Saxony: 

It is highly necessary that the taking of interest should 
be regulat^ everywhere, but to abolish it entirely would 
not be right either, for it can be made just. I do not advise 
your Grace, however, to support people in their refusal 
to pay interest or to prevent them from paying it, for 
it is not a burden laid upon people by a Prince in his 
law, but it is a common plague that all have taken upon 
themselves. We must put up with it, therefore, and 
hold debtors to it and not let them spare themselves 
and seek a remedy of their own, but put them on a 
level with everybody else, as love requires. 

Shylock is a Jew living in a predominantly Christian society, 
just as Othello is a Negro living in a predominantly white 
society. But, unlike Othello, Shylock rejects the Christian 
community as firmly as it rejects him. Shylock and Antonio 
are at one in refusing to acknowledge a common brotherhood. 

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk 
with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, 
drink with you, nor pray with you. (Shylock.) 

I am as like 

To spit on thee again, to spurn thee, too. 

If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not 
As to thy friends . . . 

But lend it rather to thine enemy. 

Who if he break, thou mayst with better face 
Exact the penalty. (Antonio.) 

In addition, unlike Othello, whose profession of arms is socially 
honorable, Shylock is a professional usurer who, like a prosti- 
tute, has a social function but is an outcast from the com- 
munity. But, in the play, he acts unprofessionally; he refuses 
to charge Antonio interest and insists upon making their legal 

228 ] The Shakespearian City 

relation that of debtor and creditor, a relation acknowledged 
as legal by all societies. Several critics have pointed to analogies 
between the trial scene and the medieval Processus Belial 
in which Our Lady defends man against the prosecuting 
Devil who claims the legal right to man’s soul. The Roman 
doctrine of the Atonement presupposes that the debtor de- 
serves no mercy — Christ may substitute Himself for man, but 
the debt has to be paid by death on the cross. The Devil is 
defeated, not because he has no right to demand a penalty, 
but because he does not know that the penalty has been 
already suffered. But the differences between Shylock and 
Belial are as important as their similarities. The comic Devil 
of the mystery play can appeal to logic, to the letter of the 
law, but he cannot appeal to the heart or to the imagination, 
and Shakespeare allows Shylock to do both. In his “Hath not a 
Jew eyes . . .” speech in Act III, Scene I, he is permitted to 
appeal to the sense of human brotherhood, and in the trial 
scene, he is allowed to argue, with a sly appeal to the fear a 
merchant class has of radical social revolution; 

You have among you many a purchased slave 
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules. 

You use in abject and in slavish parts, 

which points out that those who preach mercy and brother- 
hood as universal obligations limit them in practice and are 
prepared to treat certain classes of human beings as things. 

Furthermore, while Belial is malevolent without any cause 
except love of malevolence for its own sake, Shylock is pre- 
sented as a particular individual living in a particular kind of 
society at a particular time in history. Usury, like prostitution, 
may corrupt the character, but those who borrow upon usury, 
like those who visit brothels, have their share of responsibility 
for this corruption and aggravate their guilt by showing con- 
tempt for those whose services they make use of. 

It is, surely, in order to emphasize this point that, in the 
trial scene, Shakespeare introduces an element which is not 
found in Pecorone or other versions of the pound-of-flesh- 
story. After Portia has trapped Shylock through his own 

Brothers & Others 

[ 229 

insistence upon the letter of the law of Contract, she produces 
another law by which any alien who conspires against the 
life of a Venetian citizen forfeits his goods and places his 
life at the Doge’s mercy. Even in the rush of a stage per- 
formance, the audience cannot help reflecting that a man as 
interested in legal subtleties as Shylock, would, surely, have 
been aware of the existence of this law and that, if by any 
chance he had overlooked it, the Doge surely would very 
soon have drawn his attention to it. Shakespeare, it seems 
to me, was willing to introduce what is an absurd implausi- 
bility for the sake of an effect which he could not secure 
without it: at the last moment when, through his conduct, 
Shylock has destroyed any sympathy we may have felt for 
him earlier, we are reminded that, irrespective of his personal 
character, his status is one of inferiority. A Jew is not regarded, 
even in law, as a brother. 

If the wicked Shylock cannot enter the fairy story world of 
Belmont, neither can the noble Antonio, though his friend, 
Bassanio, can. In the fairy story world, the symbol of final 
peace and concord is marriage, so that, if the story is concerned 
with the adventures of two friends of the same sex, male or 
female, it must end with a double wedding. Had he wished, 
Shakespeare could have followed the Pecorone story in which 
it is Ansaldo, not Gratiano, who marries the equivalent of 
Nerissa. Instead, he portrays Antonio as a melancholic who is 
incapable of loving a woman. He deliberately avoids the 
classical formula of the Perfect Friends by making the rela- 
tionship unequal. When Salanio says of Antonio's feelings 
for Bassanio 

I think he only loves the world for him 

we believe it, but no one would say that Bassanio’s affec- 
tions are equally exclusive. Bassanio, high-spirited, elegant, 
pleasure-loving, belongs to the same world as Gratiano and 
Lorenzo; Antonio does not. When he says: 

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, 

A stage, where eveiyman must play a part. 

And mine a sad one 

230 ] The Shakespearian City 

Gratiano may accuse him of putting on an act, but we believe 
him, just as it does not seem merely the expression of a noble 
spirit of self-sacrifice when he tells Bassanio: 

I am a tainted wether of the flock, 

Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit 
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me. 

It is well known that love and understanding breed love and 

The more people on high who comprehend each other, 
the more there are to love well, and the more 
love is there, and like a mirror, one giveth 
back to the other. 

CPurgatorio, xv.) 

So, with the rise of a mercantile economy in which money 
breeds money, it became an amusing paradox for poets to use 
the ignoble activity of usury as a metaphor for love, the most 
noble of human activities. Thus, in his Sonnets, Shakespeare 
uses usury as an image for the married love which begets 

Profitless usurer, why does thou use 
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live? 

For having traffic with thyself alone 

Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive. 

CSonnet iv.) 

That use is not forbidden usury 

Which happies those that pay the willing loan. 

That’s for thyself, to breed another thee. 

Or ten times happier, be it ten for one. 


And, even more relevant, perhaps, to Antonio are the lines 

But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure 
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure, 


Brothers & Others 

[ ^ 3 * 

There is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare had read 
Dante, but he must have b^n familiar with the association 
of usury with sodomy of which Dante speaks in the Eleventh 
Canto of the Inferno. 

It behoves man to gain his bread and to prosper. And 
because the usurer takes another way, he contemns 
Nature in herself and her followers, placing elsewhere 
his hope .... And hence the smallest round seals with 
its mark Sodom and the Cahors .... 

It can, therefore, hardly be an accident that Shylock the 
usurer has as his antagonist a man whose emotional life, 
though his conduct may be chaste, is concentrated upon a 
member of his own sex. 

In any case, the fact that Bassanio’s feelings are so much 
less intense makes Antonio's seem an example of that inor- 
dinate affection which theologians have always condemned as 
a form of idolatry, a putting of the creature before the creator. 
In the sixteenth century, suretyship, like usury, was a contro- 
versial issue. The worldly-wise condemned the standing surety 
for another on worldly grounds. 

Beware of standing suretyship for thy best friends; 
he that payeth another man's debts seeketh his own 
decay: neither borrow money of a neighbour or a friend, 
but of a stranger, (lord burghley.) 

Suffer not thyself to be wounded for other men’s faults, 
or scourged for other men’s offences, which is the surety 
for another: for thereby, millions of men have been 
beggared and destroyed. . . . from suretyship as from a 
manslayer or enchanter, bless thyself. 


And clerics like Luther condemned it on theological grounds. 

Of his life and property a man is not certain for a 
single moment, any more than he is certain of the man 
for whom he becomes surety. Therefore the man who 
becomes surety acts unchristian like and deserves what 

2^2 ] The Shakespearian City 

he gets, because he pledges and promises what is not 
his and not in his power, but in the hands of God alone. 

. . . These sureties act as though their life and property 
were their own and were in their power as long as 
they wished to have it; and this is nothing but the fruit 
of unbelief. ... If there were no more of this becoming 
surety, many a man would have to keep down and be 
satisfied with a moderate living, who now aspires night 
and day after high places, relying on borrowing and 
standing surety. 

The last sentence of this passage applies very well to Bassanio. 
In Pecorone, the Lady of Belmonte is a kind of witch and 
Gianetto gets into financial difficulties because he is the 
victim of magic, a fate which is never regarded as the victim's 
fault. But Bassanio had often borrowed money from Antonio 
before he ever considered wooing Portia and was in debt, 
not through magic or unforeseeable misfortune, but through 
his own extravagances, 

'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio, 

How much I have disabled my estate 
By something showing a more swelling port 
Than my faint means would grant continuance 

and we feel that Antonio’s continual generosity has encour- 
aged Bassanio in his spendthrift habits. Bassanio seems to be 
one of those people whose attitude towards money is that 
of a child; it will somehow always appear by magic when 
really needed. Though Bassanio is aware of Shylock’s malevo- 
lence, he makes no serious effort to dissuade Antonio from 
signing the bond because, thanks to the ever-open purse of his 
friend, he cannot believe that bankruptcy is a real possibility 
in life. 

Shylock is a miser and Antonio is openhanded with his 
money; nevertheless, as a merchant, Antonio is equally a 
member of an acquisitive society. He is trading with Tripoli, 
the Indies, Mexico, England, and when Salanio imagines him- 
self in Antonio’s place, he describes a possible shipwreck thus: 

Brothers &■ Others 

[ ^33 

. . . the rocks 

Scatter all her spices on the stream. 

Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks. 

The commodities, that is to say, in which the Venetian 
merchant deals are not necessities but luxury goods, the con- 
sumption of which is governed not by physical need but by 
psychological values like social prestige, so that there can be 
no question of a Just Price. Then, as regards his own expendi- 
ture, Antonio is, like Shylock, a sober merchant who practices 
economic abstinence. Both of them avoid the carnal music 
of this world. Shylock’s attitude towards the Masquers 

Lx»ck up my doors and when you hear the drum 
And the vile squeaking of the wry-necked fife 
Clamber not you up the casement then. 

Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter 
My sober house 

finds an echo in Antonio’s words a scene later: 

Fie, fie, Gratiano. Where are all the rest? 

Tis nine o’clock: our friends all stay for you. 

No masque to-night — the wind is come about. 

Neither of them is capable of enjoying the carefree happiness 
for which Belmont stands. In a production of the play, a 
stage director is faced with the awkward problem of what 
to do with Antonio in the last act. Shylock, the villain, has 
been vanquished and will trouble Arcadia no more, but, now 
that Bassanio is getting married, Antonio, the real hero of 
the play, has no further dramatic function. According to the 
Arden edition, when Alan McKinnon produced the play at 
the Garrick theatre in 1905, he had Antonio and Bassanio 
hold the stage at the final curtain, but I cannot picture Portia, 
who is certainly no Victorian doormat of a wife, allowing her 
bridegroom to let her enter the house by herself. If Antonio 
is not to fade away into a nonentity, then the married couples 
must enter the lighted house and leave Antonio standing 
alone on the darkened stage, outside the Eden from which. 

234 ] The Shakespearian City 

not by the choice of others, but by his own nature, he is 

Without the Venice scenes, Belmont would be an Arcadia 
without any relation to actual times and places, and where, 
therefore, money and sexual love have no reality of their own, 
but are symbolic signs for a community in a state of grace. 
But Belmont is related to Venice though their existences are 
not really compatible with each other. This incompatibility is 
brought out in a fascinating way by the difference between 
Belmont time and Venice time. Though we are not told exactly 
how long the period is before Shylock’s loan must be repaid, 
we know that it is more than a month. Yet Bassanio goes off 
to Belmont immediately, submits immediately on arrival to 
the test of the caskets, and has just triumphantly passed it 
when Antonio’s letter arrives to inform him that Shylock is 
about to take him to court and claim his pound of flesh. Bel- 
mont, in fact, is like one of those enchanted palaces where 
time stands still. But because we are made aware of Venice, 
the real city, where time is real, Belmont becomes a real society 
to be judged by the same standards we apply to any other 
kind of society. Because of Shylock and Antonio, Portia’s 
inherited fortune becomes real money which must have been 
made in this world, as all fortunes are made, by toil, anxiety, 
the enduring and inflicting of suffering. Portia we can admire 
because, having seen her leave her Earthly Paradise to do a 
good deed in this world (one notices, incidentally, that in 
this world she appears in disguise), we know that she is 
aware of her wealth as a moral responsibility, but the other 
inhabitants of Belmont, Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo and 
Jessica, for all their beauty and charm, appear as frivolous 
members of a leisure class, whose carefree life is parasitic upon 
the labors of others, including usurers. When we learn that 
Jessica has spent fourscore ducats of her father’s money in an 
evening and bought a monkey with her mother’s ring, we 
cannot take this as a comic punishment for Shylock’s sin of 
avarice; her behavior seems rather an example of the opposite 
sin of conspicuous waste. Then, with the example in our 
minds of self-sacrificing love as displayed by Antonio, while 

Brothers ^ Others 

[ 235 

we can enjoy the verbal felicity of the love duet between 
Lorenzo and Jessica, we cannot help noticing that the pairs 
of lovers they recall, Troilus and Cressida, Aeneas and Dido, 
Jason and Medea, are none of them examples of self-sacrifice 
or fidelity. Recalling that the inscription on the leaden casket 
ran, “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath,” 
it occurs to us that we have seen two characters do this. Shy- 
lock, however unintentionally, did, in fact, hazard all for the 
sake of destroying the enemy he hated, and Antonio, how- 
ever unthinkingly he signed the bond, hazarded all to secure 
the happiness of the friend he loved. Yet it is precisely these 
two who cannot enter Belmont. Belmont would like to believe 
that men and women are either good or bad by nature, but 
Shylock and Antonio remind us that this is an illusion: in 
the real world, no hatred is totally without justification, no 
love totally innocent. 

As a society, Venice is more efficient and successful than 
Henry IV’s England. Its citizens are better off, more secure 
and nicer mannered. Politically speaking, therefore, one may 
say that a mercantile society represents an advance upon a 
feudal society, as a feudal society represents an advance upon 
a tribal society. But every step forward brings with it its own 
dangers and evils for, the more advanced a social organiza- 
tion, the greater the moral demands it makes upon its members 
and the greater the degree of guilt which they incur if they 
fail to meet these demands. The members of a society with 
a primitive self-sufficient economy can think of those outside 
it as others, not brothers, with a good conscience, because they 
can get along by themselves. But, first, money and, then, 
machinery have created a world in which, irrespective of our 
cultural traditions and our religious or political convictions, 
we are all mutually dependent. This demands that we accept 
all other human beings on earth as brothers, not only in law, 
but also in our hearts. Our temptation, of course, is to do just 
the opposite, not to return to tribal loyalties — that is impos- 
sible — but, each of us, to regard everybody else on earth 
not even as an enemy, but as a faceless algebraical cipher. 

236 ] The Shakespearian City 

They laid the coins before the council. 

Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said: 
“Good; these cover the years and the miles 
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk. 
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held, 
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space 
tunnelled; gold dances deftly over frontiers. 

The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents, 
and events move now in a smoother control 
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns. 

Money is the medium of exchange.” 

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook 
while he touched the dragons; he said “We had a good 

Sir, if you made verse, you would doubt symbols. 

I am afraid of the little loosed dragons. 

When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when 

escape from verse they hurry to rape souls; 

when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant; 

the brood of carriers levels the good they carry. 

We have taught our images to be free; are ye glad? 
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to 

The Archbishop answered the lords; 

his words went up through a slope of calm air: 

"Might may take symbols and folly make treasure, 
and greed bid God, who hides himself for man’s pleasure 
by occasion, hide himself essentially: this abides — 
that the everlasting house the soul discovers 
is always another’s; we must lose our own ends; 
we must always live in the habitation of our lovers, 
my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him. 

This is the way of this world in the day of that other’s; 
make yourselves friends by means of the riches of 

Brothers Sr Others 

[ ^37 

for the wealth of the self is the health of the self^ ex- 

What saith Heraclitus? — and what is the City’s breath? — 
dying each other's life, living each other’s death. 
Money is a medium of exchange.” 

CcHARi.ES WILLIAMS, Toliessin through Logres.") 


Nathanael West is not, strictly speaking, a novelist; that is 
to say, he does not attempt an accurate description either of 
the social scene or of the subjective life of the mind. For his 
first book, he adopted the dream convention, but neither the 
incidents nor the language are credible as a transcription of 
a real dream. For his other three, he adopted the convention 
of a social narrative; his characters need real food, drink and 
money, and live in recognizable places like New York or 
Hollywood, but, taken as feigned history, they are absurd. 
Newspapers do, certainly, have Miss Lonelyhearts columns; 
but in real life these are written by sensible, not very sensitive, 
people who conscientiously give the best advice they can, but 
do not take the woes of their correspondents home with them 
from the office, people, in fact, like Betty of whom Mr. West’s 
hero says scornfully: 

Her world was not the world and could never include 
the readers of his column. Her sureness was based on the 
power to limit experience arbitrarily. Moreover, his con- 
fusion was significant, while her order was not. 

On Mr. West’s paper, the column is entrusted to a man the 
walls of whose room 

were bare except for an ivory Christ that hung opposite 
the foot of the bed. He had removed the figure from the 
cross to which it had been fastened and had nailed it 

Interlude: West’s Disease [ 239 

to the walls with large spikes. ... As a boy in his father’s 
church, he had discovered that something stirred in him 
when he shouted the name of Christ, something secret 
and enormously powerful. He had played with this thing, 
but had never allowed it to come alive. He knew now 
what this thing was — hysteria, a snake whose scales 
were tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a 
semblance of life, and how dead the world is ... a world 
of doorknobs. 

It is impossible to believe that such a character would ever 
apply for a Miss Lxjnelyhearts job (in the hope, apparently, 
of using it as a stepping-stone to a gossip column), or that, 
if by freak chance he did, any editor would hire him. 

Again, the occupational vice of the editors one meets is 
an overestimation of the social and moral value of what a 
newspaper does. Mr. West’s editor. Shrike, is a Mephisto who 

Miss Lonelyhearts, my friend, I advise you to give your 
readers stones. When they ask for bread don’t give them 
crackers as does the Church, and don’t, like the State, 
tell them to eat cake. Explain that man cannot live by 
bread alone and give them stones. Teach them to pray 
each morning: ‘Give us this day our daily stone.’ 

Such a man, surely, would not be a Feature Editor long. 

A writer may concern himself with a very limited area 
of life and still convince us that he is describing the real 
world, but one becomes suspicious when, as in West’s case, 
whatever world he claims to be describing, the dream life 
of a highbrow, lowbrow existence in Hollywood, or the Amer- 
ican political scene, all these worlds share the same peculiar 
traits — no married couples have children, no child has more 
than one parent, a high percentage of the inhabitants are 
cripples, and the only kind of personal relation is the sado- 

There is, too, a curious resemblance among the endings 
of his four books. 

his time exposing to his employees the meaning- 



, 240 ] The Shakespearian City 

His body broke free of the bard. It took on a life of 
its own; a life that knew nothing of the poet Balso. Only 
to death can this release be likened — the mechanics of 
decay. After death the body takes command; it performs 
the manual of disintegration with a marvelous certainty. 

So now, his body performed the evolutions of love wim 
a like sureness. In this activity, Home and Duty, Love 
and Art were forgotten. . . . His body screamed and 
shouted as it marched and uncoiled; then with one heav- 
ing shout of triumph, it fell back quiet. 

He was running tq succor them with love. The cripple 
turned to escape, but he was too slow and Miss Londy- 
hearts caught him. . . . The gun inside the package 
exploded and Miss Lonelyhearts fell, dragging the cripple 
with him. They both rolled part of the way down stairs. 

1 am a clown,’ he began, ’but there are times when 
even clowns must grow serious. This is such a time. 

I . . .’ Lem got no further. A shot rang out and he fell 
dead, drilled through the heart by an assassin's bullet. 

He was carried through the exit to the back street and 
lifted into a police car. The siren began to scream and 
at first he thought he was making the noise himself. He 
felt his lips with his hands. They were clamped tight. He 
knew then it was the siren. For some reason this made 
him laugh and he began to imitate the siren as loud as 
he could. 

An orgasm, two sudden deaths by violence, a surrender to 
madness, are presented by West as different means for secur- 
ing the same and desirable end, escape from the conscious 
Ego and its make-believe. Consciousness, it would seem, does 
not mean freedom to choose, but freedom to play a fantastic 
role, an unreality from which a man can only be delivered by 
some physical or mental explosion outside his voluntary con- 

There are many admirable and extremely funny satirical 
passages in his books, but West is not a satirist. Satire pre- 

Interlude: West's Disease [ 241 

supposes conscience and reason as the judges between the 
true and the false, the moral and the immoral, to which it 
appeals, but for West these faculties are themselves the 
creators of unreality. 

His books should, I think, be classified as Cautionary Tales, 
parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much 
the Father of Lies as the Father of Wishes. Shakespeare gives 
a glimpse of this hell in Hamlet, and Dostoievsky has a 
lengthy description in Notes from the Underground, but they 
were interested in many hells and heavens. Compared with 
them. West has the advantages and disadvantages of the 
specialist who knows everything about one disease and nothing 
about any other. He was a sophisticated and highly skilled 
literary craftsman, but what gives all his books such a power- 
ful and disturbing fascination, even A Cool Million, which 
must, I think, be judged a failure, owes nothing to calculation. 
West’s descriptions of Inferno have the authenticity of first- 
hand experience; he has certainly been there, and the reader 
has the uncomfortable feeling that his was not a short visit. 

All his main characters suffer from the same spiritual dis- 
ease which, in honor of the man who devoted his life to 
studying it, we may call West’s Disease. This is a disease of 
consciousness which renders it incapable of converting wishes 
into desires. A lie is false; what it asserts is not the case. A 
wish is fantastic; it knows what is the case but refuses to 
accept it. All wishes, whatever their apparent content, have 
the same and unvarying meaning: “I refuse to be what I am.” 
A wish, therefore, is either innocent and frivolous, a kind of 
play, or a serious expression of guilt and despair, a hatred 
of oneself and every being one holds responsible for oneself. 

Our subconscious life is a world ruled by wish but, since 
it is not a world of action, this is harmless; even nightmare is 
playful, but it is the task of consciousness to translate wish into 
desire. If, for whatever reason, self-hatred or self-pity, it fails to 
do this, it dooms a human being to a peculiar and horrid fate. 
To begin with, he cannot desire anything, for the present state 
of the self is the ground of every desire, and that is precisely 
what the wisher rejects. Nor can he believe anything, for a 

242 ] The Shakespearian City 

wish is not a belief; whatever he wishes he cannot help know- 
ing that he could have wished something else. At first he may 
be content with switching from one wish to another: 

She would get some music on the radio, then lie down 
on her bed and shut her eyes. She had a large assortment 
of stories to choose from. After getting herself in the 
right mood, she would go over them in her mind as 
though they were a pack of cards, discarding one after 
another until she found one that suited. On some days 
she would run through the whole pack without making 
a choice. When that happened, she would either go 
down to Fine Street for an ice-cream soda or, if she were 
broke, thumb over the pack again and force herself to 

While she admitted that her method was too mechani- 
cal for the best results and that it was better to slip into a 
dream naturally, she said that any dream was better than 
none and beggars couldn’t be choosers. 

But in time, this ceases to amuse, and the wisher is left with 
the despair which is the cause of all of them : 

When not keeping house, he sat in the back yard, called 
the patio by the real estate agent, in a broken down deck 
chair. In one of the closets he had found a tattered book 
and he held it in his lap without looking at it. There was 
a much better view to be had in any direction other than 
the one he faced. By moving his chair in a quarter circle 
he could have seen a large part of the canyon twisting 
down to the city below. He never thought of making this 
shift. From where he sat, he saw the closed door of the 
garage and a patch of its shabby, tarpaper roof. 

A sufferer from West’s Disease is not selfish but absolutely 
self-centered. A selfish man is one who satisfies his desires at 
other people’s expense; for this reason, he tries to see what 
others are really like and often sees them extremely accurately 
in order that he may make use of them. But, to the self- 
centered man, other people only exist as images either of what 

Interlude: West’s Disease [ 243 

he is or of what he is not, his feelings towards them are pro- 
jections of the pity or the hatred he feels for himself arid any- 
thing he does to them is really done to himself. Hence the 
inconsistent and unpredictable behavior of a sufferer from 
West’s Disease: he may kiss your feet one moment and kick 
you in the jaw the next and, if you were to ask him why, he 
could not tell you. 

In its final stages, the disease reduces itself to a craving for 
violent physical pain — this craving, unfortunately, can be 
projected onto others — for only violent pain can put an end 
to wishing for something and produce the real wish of neces- 
sity, the cry “Stop!” 

All West’s books contain cripples. A cripple is unfortunate 
and his misfortune is both singular and incurable. Hunch- 
backs, girls without noses, dwarfs, etc., are not sufficiently 
common in real life to appear as members of an unfortunate 
class, like the very poor. Each one makes the impression of a 
unique case. Further, the nature of the misfortune, a physical 
deformity, makes the victim repellent to the senses of the 
typical and normal, and there is nothing the cripple or others 
can do to change his condition. What attitude towards his 
own body can he have then but hatred? As used by West, the 
cripple is, I believe, a symbolic projection of the state of wish- 
ful self-despair, the state of those who will not accept them- 
selves in order to change themselves into what they would or 
should become, and justify their refusal by thinking that being 
what they are is uniquely horrible and uncurable. To look at, 
Faye Greener is a pretty but not remarkable girl; in the eyes 
of Faye Greener, she is an exceptionally hideous spirit. 

In saying that cripples have this significance in West’s writ- 
ing, I do not mean to say that he was necessarily aware of it. 
Indeed, I am inclined to think he was not. I suspect that, con- 
sciously, he thought pity and compassion were the same thing, 
but what the behavior of his “tender” characters shows is that 
all pity is self-pity and that he who pities others is incapable 
of compassion. Ruthlessly as he exposes his dreamers, he seems 
to believe that the only alternative to despair is to become a 
crook. Wishes may be unreal, but at least they are not, like all 
desires, wicked: 

244 ] 

The Shakespearian City 

His friends would go on telling such stories until they 
were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their child- 
ishness, but did not know how else to revenge them- 
selves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they 
had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an 
absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost every- 
thing. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They 
were not worldly men. 

The use of the word worldly is significant. West comes very 
near to accepting the doctrine of the Marquis de Sade — there 
are many resemblances between A Cool Million and Justine — 
to believing, that is, that the creation is essentially evil and 
that goodness is contrary to its laws, but his moral sense re- 
volted against Sade’s logical conclusion that it was therefore a 
man’s duty to be as evil as possible. All West’s “worldly” 
characters are bad men, most of them grotesquely bad, but 
here again his artistic instinct seems at times to contradict his 
conscious intentions. I do not think, for example, that he 
meant to make Wu Fong, the brothel-keeper, more sym- 
pathetic and worthy of respect than, say. Miss Lonelyhearts 
or Homer Simpson, but that is what he does: 

Wu Fong was a very shrewd man and a student of 
fashion. He saw that the trend was in the direction of 
home industry and home talent and when the Hearst 
papers began their “Buy American” campaign, he de- 
cided to get rid of all the foreigners in his employ and 
turn his establishment into a hundred percentum Amer- 
ican place. He engaged Mr. Asa Goldstein to redecorate 
the house and that worthy designed a Pennsylvania 
Dutch, Old South, Log Cabin Pioneer, Victorian New 
York, Western Cattle Days, Californian Monterey, In- 
dian and Modern Girl series of interiors. . . . 

He was as painstaking as a great artist and in order to 
be consistent as one he did away with the French cuisine 
and wines traditional to his business. Instead, he sub- 
stituted an American kitchen and cellar. When a client 
visited Lena Haubengruber, it was possible for him to 
eat roast groundhog and drink Sam Thompson rye. 

Interlude: West’s Disease 


While with Alice Sweethome, he was served sow belly 
with grits and bourbon. In Mary Judkins’ rooms he re- 
ceived, if he so desired, fried squirrel and corn liquor. In 
the suite occupied by Patricia Van Riis, lobster and 
champagne were the rule. The patrons of Powder River 
Rose usually ordered mountain oysters and washed them 
down with forty rod. And so on down the list. . . . 

After so many self-centered despairers who cry in their baths 
or bare their souls in barrooms, a selfish man like this, who 
takes pride in doing something really well, even if it is running 
a brothel, seems almost a good man. 

There have, no doubt, always been cases of West’s Disease, 
but the chances of infection in a democratic and mechanized 
society like our own are much greater than in the more static 
and poorer societies of earlier times. 

When, for most people, their work, their company, even 
their marriages, were determined, not by personal choice or 
ability, but by the class into which they were born, the in- 
dividual was less tempted to develop a personal grudge against 
Fate; his fate was not his own but that of everyone around 

But the greater the equality of opportunity in a society be- 
comes, the more obvious becomes the inequality of the talent 
and character among individuals, and the more bitter and 
personal it must be to fail, particularly for those who have 
some talent but not enough to win them second or third place. 

In societies with fewer opportunities for amusement, it was 
also easier to tell a mere wish from a real desire. If, in order 
to hear some music, a man has to wait for six months and then 
walk twenty miles, it is easy to tell whether the words, “I 
should like to hear some music,” mean what they appear to 
mean, or merely, “At this moment I should like to forget my- 
self.” When all he has to do is press a switch, it is more diffi- 
cult. He may easily come to believe that wishes can come 
true. This is the first symptom of West’s Disease; the later 
symptoms are less pleasant, but nobody who has read 
Nathanael West can say that he wasn’t warned. 


Reason is God’s gift; hut so are the passions. 
Reason is as guilty as passion. 



Any consideration of the Tragedy of Othello must be pri- 
marily occupied, not with its official hero but with its villain. 
I cannot think of any other play in which only one character 
performs personal actions — all the deeds are lago’s — and all 
the others without exception only exhibit behavior. In marry- 
ing each other, Othello and Desdemona have performed a 
deed, but this took place before the play begins. Nor can I 
think of another play in which the villain is so completely 
triumphant: everything lago sets out to do, he accomplishes 
— (among his goals, I include his self-destruction). Even 
Cassio, who survives, is maimed for life. 

If Othello is a tragedy — and one certainly cannot call it a 

The Joker in the Pack [ 247 

comedy — is tragic in a peculiar way. In most tragedies the 
fall of the hero from glory to misery and death is the work, 
either of the gods, or of his own freely chosen acts, or, more 
commonly, a mixture of both. But the fall of Othello is the 
work of another human being; nothing he says or does orig- 
inates with himself. In consequence we feel pity for him but 
no respect; our aesthetic respect is reserved for lago. 

lago is a wicked man. The wicked man, the stage villain, 
as a subject of serious dramatic interest does not, so far as I 
know, appear in the drama of Western Europe before the 
Elizabethans. In the mystery plays, the wicked characters, like 
Satan or Herod, are treated comically, but the theme of the 
triumphant villain cannot be treated comically because the 
suffering he indicts is real. 

A distinction must be made between the villainous character 
— figures like Don John in Much Ado, Richard III, Edmund 
in Lear, lachimo in Cymheline — and the merely criminal char- 
acter — ^figures like Duke Antonio in The Tempest, Angelo in 
Measure for Measure, Macbeth or Claudius in Hamlet. The 
criminal is a person who finds himself in a situation where 
he is tempted to break the law and succumbs to the tempta- 
tion: he ought, of course, to have resisted the temptation, but 
everybody, both on stage and in the audience, must admit that, 
had they been placed in the same situation, they, too, would 
have been tempted. The opportunities are exceptional — 
Prospero, immersed in his books, has left the government of 
Milan to his brother, Angelo is in a position of absolute author- 
ity, Claudius is the Queen’s lover, Macbeth is egged on by 
prophecies and heaven-sent opportunities, but the desire for a 
dukedom or a crown or a chaste and beautiful girl are desires 
which all can imagine themselves feeling. 

The villain, on the other hand, is shown from the beginning 
as being a malcontent, a person with a general grudge against 
life and society. In most cases this is comprehensible because 
the villain has, in fact, been wronged by Nature or Society: 
Richard III is a hunchback, Don John and Edmund are 
bastards. What distinguishes their actions from those of the 
criminal is that, even when they have something tangible to 

248 ] The Shakespearian City 

gain, this is a secondary satisfaction; their primary satisfaction 
is the infliction of suffering on others, or the exercise of power 
over others against their will. Richard does not really desire 
Anne; what he enjoys is successfully wooing a lady whose 
husband and father-in-law he has killed. Since he has per- 
suaded Gloucester that Edgar is a would-be parricide, Edmund 
does not need to betray his father to Cornwall and Regan in 
order to inherit. Don John has nothing personally to gain from 
ruining the happiness of Claudio and Hero except the pleasure 
of seeing them unhappy. lachimo is a doubtful case of villainy. 
When he and Posthumus make their wager, the latter warns 

If she remain unseduced, you not making it appear other- 
wise, for your ill opinion and th’assault you have made on 
her chastity you shall answer me with your sword. 

To the degree that his motive in deceiving Posthumus is 
simply physical fear of losing his life in a duel, he is a coward, 
not a villain; he is only a villain to the degree that his motive 
is the pleasure of making and seeing the innocent suffer. 
Coleridge’s description of lago’s actions as “motiveless malig- 
nancy” applies in some degree to all the Shakespearian vil- 
lains. The adjective motiveless means, firstly, that the tangible 
gains, if any, are clearly not the principal motive and, secondly, 
that the motive is not the desire for personal revenge upon 
another for a personal injury. lago himself proffers two reasons 
for wishing to injure Othello and Cassio. He tells Roderigo 
that, in appointing Cassio to be his lieutenant, Othello has 
treated him unjustly, in which conversation he talks like the 
conventional Elizabethan malcontent. In his soliloquies with 
himself, he refers to his suspicion that both Othello and 
Cassio have made him a cuckold, and here he talks like the 
conventional jealous husband who desires revenge. But there 
are, I believe, insuperable objections to taking these reasons, 
as .some critics have done, at their face value. If one of lago’s 
goals is to supplant Cassio in the lieutenancy, one can only 
say that his plot fails for, when Cassio is cashiered, Othello 
does not appoint lago in his place. It is true that, in Act III, 

The Jofeer in the Pack [ 249 

scene 3, when they swear blood-brotherhood in revenge, 
Othello concludes with the words 

. . . now thou are my lieutenant 

to which lago replies: 

I am your own for ever 

but the use of the word lieutenant in this context refers, surely, 
not to a public military rank, hut to a private and illegal dele- 
gation of authority — the job delegated to lago is the secret 
murder of Cassio, and lago’s reply, which is a mocking echo of 
an earlier line of Othello’s, refers to a relation which can never 
become public. The ambiguity of the word is confirmed by its 
use in the first line of the scene which immediately follows. 
Desdemona says 

Do you know, sirrah, where the Lieutenant Cassio lies? 

(One should beware of attaching too much significance to 
Elizabethan typography, but it is worth noting that Othello’s 
lieutenant is in lower case and Desdomona’s in upper). As for 
lago’s jealousy, one cannot believe that a seriously jealous man 
could behave towards his wife as lago behaves towards Emilia, 
for the wife of a jealous husband is the first person to suffer. 
Not only is the relation of lago and Emilia, as we see it on 
stage, without emotional tension, but also Emilia openly refers 
to a rumor of her infidelity as something already disposed of. 

Some such squire it was 
That turned your wit, the seamy side without 
And made you to suspect me with the Moor. 

At one point lago states that, in order to revenge himself on 
Othello, he will not rest till he is even with him, wife for wife, 
but, in the play, no attempt at Desdemona’s seduction is made, 
lago does not make an assault on her virtue himself, he does 
not encourage Cassio to make one, and he even prevents 
Roderigo from getting anywhere near her. 

Finally, one who seriously desires personal revenge desires 
to reveal himself. The revenger’s greatest satisfaction is to be 

250 ] The Shakespearian City 

able to tell his victim to his face — “You thought you were all- 
powerful and untouchable and could injure me with im- 
punity. Now you see that you were wrong. Perhaps you have 
forgotten what you did; let me have the pleasure of remind- 
ing you.” 

^^en at the end of the play, Othello asks lago in be- 
vdlderment why he has thus ensnared his soul and body, if 
his real motive were revenge for having been cuckolded or 
unjustly denied promotion, he could have said so, instead of 
refusing to explain. 

In Act II, Scene I, occur seven lines which, taken in 
isolation, seem to make lago a seriously jealous man. 

Now I do love her too. 

Not out of absolute lust (though peradventure 
I stand accountant for as great a sin) 

But partly led to diet my revenge 
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor 
Hath leaped into my seat; the thought whereof 
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my vitals. 

But if spoken by an actor with serious passion, these lines 
are completely at variance with the rest of the play, including 
lago s other lines on the same subject. 

And it is thought abroad, that twixt my sheets 
He’s done my office: I know not if’t be true 
Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind. 

Will do, as if for surety. 

It is not inconceivable, given the speed at which he wrote, 
that, at some point in the composition of Othello, Shakespeare 
considered making lago seriously jealous and, like his proto- 
type in Cinthio, a would-be seducer of Desdemona, and that, 
when he arrived at his final conception of lago, he overlooked 
the incompatibility of the poisonous mineral and the wife-for- 
wife passages with the rest. 

In trying to understand lago’s character one should begin, I 
believe, by asking why Shakespeare should have gone to 

The Joh^ in the Pack [ 251 

the trouble of inventing Roderigo, a character who has no 
prototype in Cinthio. From a stage director’s point of view, 
Roderigo is a headache. In the first act we learn that Brabantio 
had forbidden him the house, from which we must conclude 
that Desdemona had met him and disliked him as much as 
her father. In the second act, in order that the audience 
shall know that he has come to Cyprus, Roderigo has to 
arrive on the same ship as Desdemona, yet she shows no 
embarrassment in his presence. Indeed, she and everybody 
else, except lago, seem unaware of his existence, for lago is 
the only person who ever speaks a word to him. Presumably, 
he has some official position in the army, but we are never 
told what it is. His entrances and exits are those of a puppet: 
whenever lago has company, he obligingly disappears, and 
whenever lago is alone and wishes to speak to him, he comes 
in again immediately. 

Moreover, so far as lago’s plot is concerned, there is nothing 
Roderigo does which lago could not do better without him. 
He could easily have found another means, like an anonymous 
letter, of informing Brabantio of Desdemona’s elopement 
and, for picking a quarrel with a drunken Cassio, he has, 
on his own admission, other means handy. 

Three lads of Cyprus, noble swelling spirits 
That hold their honour in a wary distance. 

The very elements of this warlike isle 
Have I to-night flustered with flowing cups. 

Since Othello has expressly ordered him to kill Cassio, lago 
could have murdered him without fear of legal investigation. 
Instead, he not only chooses as an accomplice a man whom 
he is cheating and whose suspicions he has constantly to 
allay, but also a man who is plainly inefficient as a murderer 
and also holds incriminating evidence against him. 

A man who is seriously bent on revenge does not take 
unnecessary risks nor confide in anyone whom he cannot trust 
or do without. Emilia is not, as in Cinthio, lago’s willing ac- 
complice, so that, in asking her to steal the handkerchief. 

252 ] The Shakespearian City 

lago is running a risk, but it is a risk he has to take. By 
involving Roderigo in his plot, he makes discovery and his 
own ruin almost certain. It is a law of drama that, by the 
final curtain, all secrets, guilty or innocent, shall have been 
revealed so that all, on both sides of the footlights, know who 
did or did not do what, but usually the guilty are exposed 
either because, like Edmund, they repent and confess or be- 
cause of events which they could not reasonably have foreseen. 
Don John could not have foreseen that Dogberry and Verges 
would overhear Borachio’s conversation, nor lachimo that 
Pisanio would disobey Posthumus’ order to kill Imogen, nor 
King Claudius the intervention of a ghost. 

Had he wished, Shakespeare could easily have contrived 
a similar kind of exposure for lago. Instead, by giving Roderigo 
the role he does, he makes lago as a plotter someone devoid 
of ordinary worldly common sense. 

One of Shakespeare’s intentions was, I believe, to indicate 
that lago desires self-destruction as much as he desires the 
destruction of others but, before elaborating on this, let us 
consider lago’s treatment of Roderigo, against whom he has 
no grievance — it is he who is injuring Roderigo — as a clue 
to his treatment of Othello and Cassio. 

When we first see lago and Roderigo together, the situation 
is like that in a Ben Jonson comedy — a clever rascal is gulling 
a rich fool who deserves to be gulled because his desire is 
no more moral than that of the more intelligent avowed 
rogue who cheats him out of his money. Were the play a 
comedy, Roderigo would finally realize that he had been 
cheated but would hot dare appeal to the law because, if the 
whole truth were made public, he would cut a ridiculous or 
shameful figure. But, as the play proceeds, it becomes clear 
that lago is not simply after Roderigo’s money, a rational 
motive, but that his main game is Roderigo’s moral corruption, 
which is irrational because Roderigo has given him no cause 
to desire his moral ruin. When the play opens, Roderigo is 
shown as a spoiled weakling, but no worse. It may be foolish 
of him to hope to win Desdemona’s affection by gifts and 
to employ a go-between, but his conduct is not in itself im- 

The Joker in the Pack [ 

moral. Nor is he, like Cloten in Cymheline, a brute \yho re- 
gards women as mere objects of lust. He is genuinely shocked 
as well as disappointed when he learns of Desdemona’s mar- 
riage, but continues to admire her as a woman full of mo^t 
blessed condition. Left to himself, he would have had a good 
bawl, and given her up. But lago will not let him alone. By 
insisting that Desdemona is seducible and that his real rival 
is not Othello but Cassio, he brings Roderigo to entertain 
the idea, originally foreign to him, of becoming a seducer and 
of helping lago to ruin Cassio. lago had had the pleasure 
of making a timid conventional man become aggressive and 
criminal. Cassio heats up Roderigo. Again, at this point, 
had he been left to himself, he would have gone no further, 
but lago will not let him alone until he consents to murder 
Cassio, a deed which is contrary to his nature, for he is not 
only timid but also incapable of passionate hatred. 

I have no great devotion to the deed: 

And yet he has given me satisfying reasons. 

’Tis but a man gone. 

Why should lago want to do this to Roderigo? To me, the 
clue to this and to all lago’s conduct is to be found in 
Emilia’s comment when she picks up the handkerchief. 

My wayward husband hath a hundred times 

Wooed me to steal it . . . 

what he’ll do with it 

Heaven knows, not I, 

I nothing but to please his fantasy. 

As his wife, Emilia must know lago better than anybody 
else does. She does not know, any more than the others, 
that he is malevolent, but she does know that her husband 
is addicted to practical jokes. What Shakespeare gives us in 
lago is a portrait of a practical joker of a peculiarly appalling 
kind, and perhaps the best way of approaching the play is by 
a general consideration of the Practical Joker. 

The Shakespearian City 

154 1 


Social relations, as distinct from the brotherhood of a com- 
munity, are only possible if there is a common social agree- 
ment as to which actions or words are to be regarded as serious 
means to a rational end and which are to be regarded as play, 
as ends in themselves. In our culture, for example, a policeman 
must be able to distinguish between a murderous street fight 
and a boxing match, or a listener between a radio play in 
which war is declared and a radio news-broadcast announcing 
a declaration of war. 

Social life also presupposes that we may believe what we 
are told unless we have reason to suppose, either that our in- 
formant has a serious motive for deceiving us, or that he 
is mad and incapable himself of distinguishing between 
truth and falsehood. If a stranger tries to sell me shares in 
a gold mine, I shall be a fool if I do not check up on his 
statements before parting with my money, and if another 
tells me that he has talked with little men who came out 
of a flying saucer, I shall assume that he is crazy. But if I ask 
a stranger the way to the station, I shall assume that his 
answer is truthful to the best of his knowledge, because 
I cannot imagine what motive he could have for misdirecting 

Practical jokes are a demonstration that the distinction 
between seriousness and play is not a law of nature but 
a social convention which can be broken, and that a man does 
not always require a serious motive for deceiving another. 

Two men, dressed as city employees, block off a busy street 
and start digging it up. The traffic cop, motorists and pedes- 
trians assume that this familiar scene has a practical explana- 
tion — a water main or an electric cable is being repaired — 
and make no attempt to use the street. In fact, however, the 
two diggers are private citizens in disguise who have no busi- 
ness there. 

All practical jokes are anti-social acts, but this does not 
necessarily mean that all practical jokes are immoral. A moral 
practical joke exposes some flaw in society which is a hin- 

The Joker in the Pack [ 255 

drance to a real community or brotherhood. That it should he 
possible for two private individuals to dig up a street Without 
being stopped is a just criticism of the impersonal life of a 
large city where most people are strangers to each other, not 
brothers; in a village where all the inhabitants know each 
other personally, the deception would be impossible. 

A real community, as distinct from social life, is only possi- 
ble between persons whose idea of themselves and others is 
real, not fantastic. There is, therefore, another class of prac- 
tical jokes which is aimed at particular individuals with the 
reformatory intent of de-intoxicating them from their illusions. 
This kind of joke is one of the stock devices of comedy. The 
deceptions practiced on Falstaff by Mistress Page, Mistress 
Ford and Dame Quickly, or by Octavian on Baron Ochs are 
possible because these two gentlemen have a fantastic idea of 
themselves as lady-charmers; the result of the jokes played 
upon them is that they are brought to a state of self-knowledge 
and this brings mutual forgiveness and true brotherhood. 
Similarly, the mock deaths of Hero and of Hermione are 
ways of bringing home to Claudio and to Leontes how badly 
they have behaved and of testing the genuineness of their re- 

All practical jokes, friendly, harmless or malevolent, involve 
deception, but not all deceptions are practical jokes. The two 
men digging up the street, for example, might have been 
two burglars who wished to recover some swag which they 
knew to be buried there. But, in that case, having found what 
they were looking for, they would have departed quietly and 
never been heard of again, whereas, if they are practical jokers, 
they must reveal afterwards what they have done or the joke 
will be lost. The practical joker must not only deceive but 
also, when he has succeeded, unmask and reveal the truth to 
his victims. The satisfaction of the practical joker is the look 
of astonishment on the faces of others when they learn 
that all the time they were convinced that they were thinking 
and acting on their own initiative, they were actually the 
puppets of another’s will. Thus, though his jokes may be 
harmless in themselves and extremely funny, there is some- 

256 ] The Shakes'pearian City 

thing slightly sinister about every practical joker, for they 
betray him as someone who likes to play God behind the 
scenes. Unlike the ordinary ambitious man who strives for 
a dominant position in public and enjoys giving orders and 
seeing others obey them, the practical joker desires to make 
others obey him without being aware of his existence until 
the moment of his theophany when he says: “Behold the 
God whose puppets you have been and behold, he does 
not look like a god but is a human being just like yourselves.” 
The success of a practical joker depends upon his accurate 
estimate of the weaknesses of others, their ignorances, their 
social reflexes, their unquestioned presuppositions, their ob- 
sessive desires, and even the most harmless practical joke is 
an expression of the joker’s contempt for those he deceives. 

But, in most cases, behind the joker’s contempt for others 
lies something else, a feeling of self-insufficiency, of a self 
lacking in authentic feelings and desires of its own. The 
normal human being may have a fantastic notion of himself, 
but he believes in it; he thinks he knows who he is and what 
he wants so that he demands recognition by others of the value 
he puts upon himself and must inform others of what he de- 
sires if they are to satisfy them. 

But the self of the practical joker is unrelated to his joke. 
He manipulates others but, when he finally reveals his 
identity, his victims learn nothing about his nature, only 
something about their own; they know how it was possible 
for them to be deceived but not why he chose to deceive 
them. The only answer that any practical joker can give to 
the question: “Why did you do this?” is lago’s: “Demand me 
nothing. What you know, you know.” 

In fooling others, it cannot be said that the practical joker 
satisfies any concrete desire of his nature; he has only demon- 
strated the weaknesses of others and all he can now do, once 
he has revealed his existence, is to bow and retire from the 
stage. He is only related to others, that is, so long as they 
are unaware of his existence; once they are made aware of it, 
he cannot fool them again, and the relation is broken off. 

The practical joker despises his victims, but at the same time 

The Joker in the Pack [ 257 

he envies them because their desires, however childish and 
mistaken, are real to them, whereas he has no desire which 
he can call his own. His goal, to make game of others, makes 
his existence absolutely dependent upon theirs; when he iS 
alone, he is a nullity. lago’s self-description, 1 am not what I 
am, is correct and the negation of the Divine I am that I am. 
If the word motive is given its normal meaning of a positive 
purpose of the self like sex, money, glory, etc., then the prac- 
tical joker is without motive. Yet the professional practical 
joker is certainly driven, like a gambler, to his activity, but 
the drive is negative, a fear of lacking a concrete self, of 
being nobody. In any practical joker to whom playing such 
jokes is a passion, there is always an element of malice, a 
projection of his self-hatred onto others, and in the ultimate 
case of the absolute practical joker, this is projected onto all 
created things. lago’s statement, “I am not what I am,” is given 
its proper explanation in the Credo which Boito wrote for him 
in his libretto for Verdi’s opera. 

Credo in un Dio crudel che m'ha creato 
Simile a se, e che nelVira io nomo. 

Doll viltd d’un germe e d’un atomo 
Vile son nato, 

Son scellerato 
Perche son uomo: 

E sento il fango originario in me 
E credo I’twm gioco d'iniqua sorte 
Dal germe della cidla 
Al verme delVavel. 

Vien dofo tanto irrision la Morte 
E poi? La Morte e il Nulla. 

Equally applicable to lago is Valery’s “Ebauche d’un serpent.” 
The serpent speaks to God the Creator thus 

O Vanitel Cause Premiere 
Celui qui regne dans les Cieux 
D’une voix qui jut la lumiere 

258 ] The Shakespearian City 

Ouvrit Vunivers spacienx. 

Comme las de son pur spectacle 
Dieu lui-mSme a rompu I’ohstacle 
De sa parfaite etemiU; 

II se fit Celui qui dissipe 
En consequences son Principe, 

En etoiles son Unite. 

And of himself thus 

Je suis Celui qui modifie 

the ideal motto, surely, for lago’s coat of arms. 

Since the ultimate goal of lago is nothingness, he must 
not only destroy others, but himself as well. Once Othello and 
Desdemona are dead his “occupation’s gone.” 

To convey this to an audience demands of the actor who 
plays the role the most violent contrast in the way he acts 
when lago is with others and the way he acts when he is left 
alone. With others, he must display every virtuoso trick of 
dramatic technique for which great actors are praised, perfect 
control of movement, gesture, expression, diction, melody and 
timing, and the ability to play every kind of role, for there are 
as many “honest” lagos as there are characters with whom he 
speaks, a Roderigo lago, a Cassio lago, an Othello lago, a 
Desdemona lago, etc. When he is alone, on the other hand, 
the actor must display every technical fault for which bad 
actors are criticized. He must deprive himself of all stage pres- 
ence, and he must deliver the lines of his soliloquies in such a 
way that he makes nonsense of them. His voice must lack ex- 
pression, his delivery must be atrocious, he must pause where 
the verse calls for no pauses, accentuate unimportant words, 


If lago is so alienated from nature and society that he has 
no relation to time and place — he could turn up anywhere 
at any time — ^his victims are citizens of Shakespeare’s Venice. 

The ]6kjer in the Pack 


To be of dramatic interest, a character must to some degree 
be at odds with the society of which he is a member, but his 
estrangement is normally an estrangement from a specific 
social situation. 

Shakespeare’s Venice is a mercantile society, the purpose 
of which is not military glory but the acquisition of wealth. 
However, human nature being what it is, like any other 
society, it has enemies, trade rivals, pirates, etc., against whom 
it must defend itself, if necessary by force. Since a mercantile 
society regards warfare as a disagreeable, but unfortunately 
sometimes unavoidable, activity and not, like a feudal aristoc- 
racy, as a form of play, it replaces the old feudal levy by a 
paid professional army, nonpolitical employees of the State, to 
whom fighting is their specialized job. 

In a professional army, a soldier’s military rank is not 
determined by his social status as a civilian, but by his military 
efficiency. Unlike the feudal knight who has a civilian home 
from which he is absent from time to time but to which, 
between campaigns, he regularly returns, the home of the 
professional soldier is an army camp and he must go wherever 
the State sends him. Othello’s account of his life as a soldier, 
passed in exotic landscapes and climates, would have struck 
Hotspur as unnatural, unchivalrous and no fun. 

A professional army has its own experiences and its own 
code of values which are different from those of civilians. In 
Othello, we are shown two societies, that of the city of Venice 
proper and that of the Venetian army. The only character 
who, because he is equally estranged from both, can simulate 
being equally at home in both, is lago. With army folk he can 
play the blunt soldier, but in his first scene with Desdemona 
upon their arrival in Cyprus, he speaks like a character out 
of Love’s Labour's Lost. Cassio’s comment 

Madam, you may relish him more in the soldier than the 

is provoked by envy. lago has excelled him in the euphuistic 
flirtatious style of conversation which he considers his forte. 

26 o ] The Shakespearian City 

Roderigo does not feel at home, either with civilians or with 
soldiers. He lacks the charm which makes a man a success 
with the ladies, and the physical courage and heartiness which 
make a man popular in an army mess. The sympathetic aspect 
of his character, until lago destroys it, is a certain humility; 
he knows that he is a person of no consequence. But for lago, 
he would have remained a sort of Bertie Wooster, and one 
suspects that the notion that Desdemona’s heart might be soft- 
ened by expensive presents was not his own but suggested 
to him by lago. 

In deceiving Roderigo, lago has to overcome his conscious- 
ness of his inadequacy, to persuade him that he could be 
what he knows he is not, charming, brave, successful. Con- 
sequently, to Roderigo and, I think, to Roderigo only, lago 
tells direct lies. The lie may be on a point of fact, as when 
he tells Roderigo that Othello and Desdemona are not return- 
ing to Venice but going to Mauritania, or a lie about the 
future, for it is obvious that, even if Desdemona is seducible, 
Roderigo will never be the man. I am inclined to think that 
the story lago tells Roderigo about his disappointment over 
the lieutenancy is a deliberate fabrication. One notices, for 
example, that he contradicts himself. At first he claims that 
Othello had appointed Cassio in spite of the request of three 
great ones of the city who had recommended lago, but then 
a few lines later, he says 

Preferment goes by letter and affection. 

Not by the old gradation where each second 
Stood heir to the first. 

In deceiving Cassio and Othello, on the other hand, lago has 
to deal with characters who consciously think well of them- 
selves but are unconsciously insecure. With them, therefore, 
his tactics are different; what he says to them is always possi- 
bly true. 

Cassio is a ladies’ man, that is to say, a man who feels most 
at home in feminine company where his looks and good man- 
ners make him popular, but is ill at ease in the company of 

The Joker in the Pack [ 261 

his own sex becuse he is unsure of his masculinity. In civilian 
life he would be perfectly happy, but circumstances have 
made him a soldier and he has been forced by his profes- 
sion into a society which is predominantly male. Had he been 
born a generation earlier, he would never have found himself 
in the army at all, but changes in the technique of warfare 
demand of soldiers, not only the physical courage and aggres- 
siveness which the warrior has always needed, but also in- 
tellectual gifts. The Venetian army now needs mathemati- 
cians, experts in the science of gunnery. But in all ages, the 
typical military mentality is conservative and resents the intel- 
lectual expert. 

A fellow 

TTiat never set a squadron in the field 

Nor the division of a battle knows 

More than a spinster . . . mere prattle without practise 

Is all his soldiership 

is a criticism which has been heard in every army mess in 
every war. Like so many people who cannot bear to feel un- 
popular and therefore repress their knowledge that they are, 
Cassio becomes quarrelsome when drunk, for alcohol releases 
his suppressed resentment at not being admired by his com- 
rades in arms and his wish to prove that he is what he is not, 
as “manly” as they are. It is significant that, when he sobers 
up, his regret is not that he has behaved badly by his own 
standards but that he has lost his reputation. The advice 
which lago then gives him, to get Desdemona to plead for 
him with Othello, is good advice in itself, for Desdemona ob- 
viously likes him, but it is also exactly the advice a character- 
type like Cassio will be most willing to listen to, for feminine 
society is where he feels most at home. 

Emilia informs Cassio that, on her own initiative, Des- 
demona has already spoken on his behalf and that Othello has 
said he will take the safest occasion by the front to restore 
him to his post. Hearing this, many men would have been 
content to leave matters as they were, but Cassio persists: 

262 ] The Shakespearian City 

the pleasure of a heart-to-heart talk with a lady about his 
fascinating self is too tempting. 

While he is talking to Desdemona, Othello is seen ap- 
proaching and she says: 

Stay and hear me speak. 

Again, many men would have done so, but Cassio’s uneasiness 
with his own sex, particularly when he is in disgrace, is too 
strong and he sneaks away, thus providing lago with his first 
opportunity to make an insinuation. 

Cassio is a ladies’ man, not a seducer. With women of his 
own class, what he enjoys is socialized eroticism; he would 
be frightened of a serious personal passion. For physical sex 
he goes to prostitutes and when, unexpectedly, Bianca falls in 
love with him, like many of his kind, he behaves like a cad 
and brags of his conquest to others. Though he does not know 
who the owner of the handkerchief actually is, he certainly 
knows that Bianca will think that it belongs to another woman, 
and to ask her to copy it is gratuitous cruelty. His smiles, ges- 
tures and remarks about Bianca to lago are insufferable in 
themselves; to Othello, who knows that he is talking about 
a woman, though he is mistaken as to her identity, they are 
an insult which only Cassio’s death can avenge. 

In Cinthio nothing is said about the Moor’s color or religion, 
but Shakespeare has made Othello a black Negro who has 
been baptized. 

No doubt there are differences between color prejudice in 
the twentieth century and color prejudice in the seventeenth 
and probably few of Shakespeare’s audience had ever seen a 
Negro, but the slave trade was already flourishing and the 
Elizabethans were certainly no innocents to whom a Negro 
was simply a comic exotic. Lines like 

... an old black ram 
is tupping your white ewe . . . 

TTie gross clasps of a lascivious Moor ... 

What delight shall she have to look on the devil 

are evidence that the paranoid fantasies of the white man 
in which the Negro appears as someone who is at one and 

The Joker in the Pack [ 263 

the same time less capable of self-control and more sexually 
potent than himself, fantasies with which, alas, we ^re only 
too familiar, already were rampant in Shakespeare’s time. 

TTie Venice of both The Merchant of Venice and Othdlo 
is a cosmopolitan society in which there are two kinds of 
social bond between its members, the bond of economic inter- 
est and the bond of personal friendship, which may coincide, 
run parallel with each other or conflict, and both plays are 
concerned with an extreme case of conflict. 

Venice needs financiers to provide capital and it needs 
the best general it can hire to defend it; it so happens that the 
most skillful financier it can find is a Jew and the best general 
a Negro, neither of whom the majority are willing to accept as 
a brother. 

Though both are regarded as outsiders by the Venetian 
community, Othello’s relation to it differs from Shylock’s. In 
the first place, Shylock rejects the Gentile community as 
firmly as the Gentile community rejects him; he is just as 
angry when he hears that Jessica has married Lorenzo as Bra- 
bantio is about Desdemona’s elopement with Othello. In the 
second place, while the profession of usurer, however socially 
useful, is regarded as ignoble, the military profession, even 
though the goal of a mercantile society is not military glory, is 
still highly admired and, in addition, for the sedentary civilians 
who govern the city, it has a romantic exotic glamour which it 
cannot have in a feudal society in which fighting is a familiar 
shared experience. 

Thus no Venetian would dream of spitting on Othello and, 
so long as there is no question of his marrying into the family, 
Brabantio is delighted to entertain the famous general and 
listen to his stories of military life. In the army, Othello is ac- 
customed to being obeyed and treated with the respect due to 
his rank and, on his rare visits to the city, he is treated by the 
white aristocracy as someone important and interesting. Out- 
wardly, nobody treats him as an outsider as they treat Shylock. 
Consequently, it is easy for him to persuade himself that he is 
accepted as a brother and when Desdemona accepts him as a 
husband, he seems to have proof of this. 

It is painful to hear him say 

264 ] The Shakespearian City 

But that I love the gentle Desdemona 
I would not my unhoused free condition 
Put into circumscription or confine 
For the sea’s worth 

for the condition of the outsider is always unhoused and free. 
He does not or will not recognize that Brabantio’s view of the 

If such actions may have passage free, 

Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be 

is shared by all his fellow senators, and the arrival of news 
about the Turkish fleet prevents their saying so because tbeir 
need of Othello’s military skill is too urgent for them to risk 
offending him. 

If one compares Othello with the other plays in which 
Shakespeare treats the subject of male jealousy. The Winter’s 
Tale and Cymheline, one notices that Othello’s jealousy is of a 
peculiar kind. 

Leontes is a classical case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to 
repressed homosexual feelings. He has absolutely no evidence 
that Hermione and Polixenes have committed adultery and his 
entire court are convinced of their innocence, but he is utterly 
possessed by his fantasy. As he says to Hermione: “Your ac- 
tions are my dreams.” But, mad as he is, “the twice-nine 
changes of the Watery Starre” which Polixenes has spent at 
the Bohemian court, make the act of adultery physically pos- 
sible so that, once the notion has entered his head, neither 
Hermione nor Polixenes nor the court can prove that it is 
false. Hence the appeal to the Oracle. 

Posthumus is perfectly sane and is convinced against his 
will that Imogen has been unfaithful because lachimo offers 
him apparently irrefutable evidence that adultery has taken 

But both the mad Leontes and the sane Posthumus react 
in the same way: “My wife has been unfaithful; therefore she 
must be killed and forgotten.” That is to say, it is only as 

The Joker in the Pack 

[ 265 

husbands that their hves are affected. As king of Bohemia, as 
a warrior, they function as if nothing has happened. 

In Othello, thanks to lago s manipulations, Cassio and Des- 
demona behave in a way which would make it not altogether 
unreasonable for Othello to suspect that they were in love 
with each other, but the time factor rules out the possibility 
of adultery having been actually committed. Some critics have 
taken the double time in the play to be merely a dramaturgical 
device for speeding the action which the audience in the 
theatre will never notice. I believe, however, that Shakespeare 
meant the audience to notice it as, in The Merchant of Venice, 
he meant them to notice the discrepancy between Belmont 
time and Venice time. 

If Othello had simply been jealous of the feelings for 
Cassio he imagined Desdemona to have, he would have been 
sane enough, guilty at worst of a lack of trust in his wife. 
But Othello is not merely jealous of feelings which might exist; 
he demands proof of an act which could not have taken place, 
and the effect on him of believing in this physical impossibility 
goes far beyond wishing to kill her: it is not only his wife who 
has betrayed him but the whole universe; life has become 
meaningless, his occupation is gone. 

This reaction might be expected if Othello and Desdemona 
were a pair like Romeo and Juliet or Antony and Cleopatra 
whose love was an all-absorbing Tristan-Isolde kind of passion, 
but Shakespeare takes care to inform us that it was not. 

When Othello asks leave to take Desdemona with him to 
Cyprus, he stresses the spiritual element in his love. 

I therefore beg it not 
To please the palate of my appetite 
Nor to comply with heat, the young affects 
In me defunct, and proper satisfaction. 

But to be free and bounteous of her mind. 

Though the imagery in which he expresses his jealously is 
sexual — what other kind of images could he use? — Othello’s 
marriage is important to him less as a sexual relationship than 

a66 ] 

The Shdkesfearian City 

as a symbol of being loved and accepted as a person, a brother 
in the Venetian community. The monster in his own mind too 
hideous to be shown is the fear he has so far repressed that he 
is only valued for his social usefulness to the City. But for his 
occupation, he would be treated as a black barbarian. . 

The overcredulous, overgood-natured character which, as 
lago tells us, Othello had always displayed is a telltale symp- 
tom. He had hod to be overcredulous in order to compensate 
for his repressed suspicions. Both in his happiness at the be- 
ginning of the play and in his cosmic despair later, Othello re- 
minds one more of Timon of Athens than of Leontes. 

Since what really matters to Othello is that Desdemona 
should love him as the person he really is, lago has only to 
get him to suspect that she does not, to release the repressed 
fears and resentments of a lifetime, and the question of what 
she has done or not done is irrelevant. 

lago treats Othello as an analyst treats a patient except that, 
of course, his intention is to kill not to cure. Everything he 
says is designed to bring to Othello’s consciousness what he has 
already guessed is there. Accordingly, he has no need to tell 
lies. Even his speech, “I lay with Cassio lately,” can be a truth- 
ful account of something which actually happened; from 
what we know of Cassio, he might very well have such a 
dream as lago reports. Even when he has worked Othello up to 
a degree of passion where he would risk nothing by telling a 
direct lie, his answer is equivocal and its interpretation is left 
to Othello. 







What hath he said? 

Faith that he did — I know not what he did. 
But what? 

Lie — 

With her? 

With her, on her, what you will. 

Nobody can offer Leontes absolute proof that his jealousy is 
baseless; similarly, as lago is careful to point out, Othello 
can have no proof that Desdemona really is the person she 
seems to be. 

The Jcher in the Pack [ 267 

lago makes his first decisive impression when, speaking as a 
Venetian with firsthand knowledge of civilian life, he draws 
attention to Desdemona’s hoodwinking of her father. 

I would not have your free and noble nature 
Out of self-bounty be abused, look to’t: 

I know our country disposition well: 

In Venice they do let God see the pranks 
They dare not show their husbands: their best 

Is not to leave undone but keep unknown. 

Dost thou say so? 

She did deceive her father, marrying you: 

And when she seemed to shake and fear your 

She loved them most. 

And so she did. 

Why, go to then. 

She that so young could give out such a 

To seal her father s eyes up, close as oak. 

He thought ’twas witchcraft. 

And a few lines later, he refers directly to the color difference. 

Not to affect many proposed matches. 

Of her own clime, complexion and degree. 

Whereto we see in all things nature tends, 

Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank. 

Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural. 

But pardon me: I do not in position 
Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear 
Her will, recoiling to her better judgment 
May fall to match you with her country-forms, 

And happily repent. 

Once Othello allows himself to suspect that Desdemona may 
not be the person she seems, she cannot allay the suspicion by 
speaking the truth but she can appear to confirm it by telling a 






268 ] The Shakespearian City 

lie. Hence the catastrophic effect when she denies having lost 
the handkerchief. 

If Othello cannot trust her, then he can trust nobody and 
nothing, and precisely what she has done is not important. In 
the scene where he pretends that the Castle is a brothel of 
which Emilia is the Madam, he accuses Desdemona, not of 
adultery with Cassio, but of nameless orgies. 

desdemona: Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed? 

OTHELLO: Was this fair paper, this most goodly book 

Made to write whore on . What committed? 
Committed. O thou public commoner, 

I should make very forges of my cheeks 
That would to cinders burn up modestly 
Did I but speak thy deeds. 

And, as Mr. Eliot has pointed out, in his farewell speech his 
thoughts are not on Desdemona at all but upon his relation to 
Venice, and he ends by identifying himself with another out- 
sider, the Moslem Turk who beat a Venetian and traduced the 

Everybody must pity Desdemona, but I cannot bring myself 
to like her. Her determination to marry Othello — it was she 
who virtually did the proposing — seems the romantic crush 
of a silly schoolgirl rather than a mature affection; it is Othel- 
lo’s adventures, so unlike the civilian life she knows, which 
captivate her rather than Othello as a person. He may not 
have practiced witchcraft, but, in fact, she is spellbound. And 
despite all Brabantio’s prejudices, her deception of her own 
father makes an unpleasant impression: Shakespeare does not 
allow us to forget that the shock of the marriage kills him. 

Then, she seems more aware than is agreeable of the honor 
she has done Othello by becoming his wife. When lago tells 
Cassio that “our General’s wife is now the General’’ and, soon 
afterwards, soliloquizes 

His soul is so infettered to her love 
That she may make, unmake, do what she list 
Even as her appetite shall play the god 
With his weak function 

The Joker in the Pack [ 269 

he is, no doubt, exaggerating, but there is much truth in what 
he says. Before Cassio spea^ to her, she has already di^ssed 
him with her husband and learned that he is to be reinstated as 
soon as is opportune. A sensible wife would have told Cassio 
this and left matters alone. In continuing to badger Othello, 
she betrays a desire to prove to herself and to Cassio that she 
can make her husband do as she pleases. 

Her lie about the handkerchief is, in itself, a trivial fib but, 
had she really regarded her husband as her equal, she might 
have admitted the loss. As it is, she is frightened because she 
is suddenly confronted with a man whose sensibility and 
superstitions are alien to her. 

Though her relation with Cassio is perfectly innocent, one 
cannot but share lago’s doubts as to the durability of the mar- 
riage. It is worth noting that, in the willow-song scene with 
Emilia, she speaks with admiration of Ludovico and then turns 
to the topic of adultery. Of course, she discusses this in general 
terms and is shocked oy Emilia s attitude, but she does discuss 
the subject and she does listen to what Emilia has to say about 
husbands and wives. It is as if she had suddenly realized that 
she had made a mesalliance and that the sort of man she ought 
to have married was someone of her own class and color 
like Ludovico. Given a few more years of Othello and of 
Emilia's influence and she might well, one feels, have taken 
a lover. 


And so one comes back to where one started, to lago, the sole 
agent in the play. A play, as Shakespeare said, is a mirror held 
up to nature. This particular mirror bears the date 1604, but, 
when we look into it, the face that confronts us is our own in 
the middle of the twentieth century. We hear lago say the 
same words and see him do the same things as an Elizabethan 
audience heard and saw, but what they mean to us cannot be 
exactly the same. To his first audience and even, maybe, to his 
creator, lago appeared to be just another Machiavellian villain 
who might exist in real life but with whom one would never 
dream of identifying oneself. To us, I think, he is a much more 

270 ] The Shakesfearian City 

alarming figure; we cannot hiss at him when he appears as we 
can hiss at the villain in a Western movie because none of us 
can honestly say that he does not understand how such a 
wicked person can exist. For is not lago, the practical joker, a 
parabolic figure for the autonomous pursuit of scientific knowl- 
edge through experiment which we all, whether we are 
scientists or not, take for granted as natural and right? 

As Nietzsche said, experimental science is the last flower of 
asceticism. The investigator must discard all his feelings, hopes 
and fears as a human person and reduce himself to a disem- 
bodied observer of events upon which he passes no value judg- 
ment. lago is an ascetic. “Love” he says, “is merely a lust of the 
blood, and a permission of the will.” 

The knowledge sought by science is only one kind of knowl- 
edge. Another kind is that implied by the Biblical phrase, 
“Then Adam knew Eve, his wife,” and it is this kind I still 
mean when I say, “I know John Smith very well.” I cannot 
know in this sense without being known in return. If I know 
John Smith well, he must also know me well. 

But, in the scientific sense of knowledge, I can only know 
that which does not and cannot know me. Feeling unwell, I go 
to my doctor who examines me, says “You have Asian flu,” and 
gives me an injection. The Asian virus is as unaware of my 
doctor’s existence as his victims are of a practical joker. 

Further, to-know in the scientific sense means, ultimately, 
to-have-power-over. To the degree that human beings are 
authentic persons, unique and self-creating, they cannot be 
scientifically known. But human beings are not pure persons 
like angels; they are also biological organisms, almost identical 
in their functioning, and, to a greater or lesser degree, they 
are neurotic, that is to say, less free than they imagine because 
of fears and desires of which they have no personal knowledge 
but could and ought to have. Hence, it is always possible to 
reduce human beings to the status of things which are com- 
pletely scientifically knowable and completely controllable. 

This can be done by direct action on their bodies with 
drugs, lobotomies, deprivation of sleep, etc. The difficulty 
about this method is that your victims vnll know that you are 

Tke Joker in tfce Pack [ 271 

trying to enslave them and, since nobody wishes to be a^slave, 
they will object, so that it can only be practiced upon minori- 
ties like prisoners and lunatics who are physically incapable of 

The other method is to play on the fears and desires of 
which you are aware and they are not until they enslave them- 
selves. In this case, concealment of your real intention is not 
only possible but essential for, if people know they are being 
played upon, they will not believe what you say or do what you 
suggest. An advertisement based on snob appeal, for example, 
can only succeed with people who are unaware that they are 
snobs and that their snobbish feelings are being appealed to 
and to whom, therefore, your advertisement seems as honest 
as lago seems to Othello. 

lago’s treatment of Othello conforms to Bacon’s definition 
of scientific enquiry as putting Nature to the Question. If a 
member of the audince were to interrupt the play and ask 
him: “What are you doing?” could not lago answer with a 
boyish giggle, “Nothing. I’m only trying to find out what 
Othello is really like”? And we must admit that his experiment 
is highly successful. By the end of the play he does know the 
scientific truth about the object to which he has reduced 
Othello. That is what makes his parting shot, “What you 
know, you know,”' so terrifying for, by then, Othello has be- 
come a thing, incapable of knowing anything. 

And why shouldn’t lago do this? After all, he has certainly 
acquired knowledge. What makes it impossible for us to con- 
demn him self-righteously is that, in our culture, we have all 
accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and un- 
limited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt 
bomb the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while 
food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit 
of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intel- 
lectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to realize that 
correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a 
categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, 
‘What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I 

The Shakesjiectrian City 

272 ] 

meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only 
knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge we can 
live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral. 
But, in that case, who are we to say to lago— “No, you 


All exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation, 
Cbertrand RUSSELL.) If SO, then infernal science differs 
from human science in that it lacks the notion of approxima- 
tion: it believes its laws to be exact. 

Ethics does not treat of the world. Ethics must be a condition 
of the world like logic. (Wittgenstein.) On this God and 
the Evil One are agreed. It is a purely human illusion to 
imagine that the laws of the spiritual life are, like our legisla- 
tion, imposed laws which we can break. We may defy them, 
either by accident, i.e., out of ignorance, or by choice, but we 
can no more break them than we can break the laws of human 
physiology by getting drunk. 

The Evil One is not interested in evil, for evil is, by definition, 
what he believes he already knows. To him, Auschwitz is a 
banal fact, like the date of the battle of Hastings. He is only 
interested in good, as that which he has so far failed to under- 
stand in terms of his absolute presuppositions; Goodness is his 

The first anthropological axiom of the Evil One is not All men 
are evil, but All men are the same; and his second — Men do 
not act: they only behave. 

Humanly speaking, to tempt someone means to offer him some 
inducement to defy his conscience. In that sense, the Evil One 

274 J Shakespearian City 

cannot be said to tempt us for, to him, conscience is a fiction. 
Nor can be properly be thought of as trying to make us Jo 
anything, for he does not believe in the existence of deeds. 
What to us is a temptation is to him an experiment: he is try- 
ing to confirm a hypothesis about human behavior. 

One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the 
Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn’t 
care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni 
cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thou- 

One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, 
but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the 
Proper Name and address of every electron in the Universe. 
But Hell could not have one, for in Hell, as in prison and the 
army, its inhabitants are identified not by name hut by num- 
ber. They do not have numbers, they are numbers. 


Two Bestiaries 


If men were as much men as lizards are lizards, 
They'd he worth looking at. 

The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, 
for good or evil, than the apostle, the man with a message. 
Without a religion, a philosophy, a code of behavior, call it 
what you will, men cannot live at all; what they believe may 
be absurd or revolting, but they have to believe something. On 
the other hand, however much the arts may mean to us, it is 
possible to imagine our lives without them. 

As a human being, every artist holds some set of beliefs or 
other but, as a rule, these are not of his own invention; his pub- 
lic knows this and judges his work without reference to them. 
We read Dante for his poetry not for his theology because 
we have already met the dieology elsewhere. 

Two Bestiaries 

278 ] 

There ate a few writers, however, like Blake and D. H. 
Lawrence, who are both artists and apostles and this makes a 
just estimation of their work difficult to arrive at. Readers who 
find something of value in their message will attach unique im- 
portance to their writings because they cannot find it anywhere 
else. But this importance may be shortlived; once I have 
learned his message, I cease to be interested in a messenger 
and, should I later come to think his message false or mislead- 
ing, I shall remember him with resentment and distaste. Even 
if I try to ignore the message and read him again as if he were 
only an artist, I shall probably feel disappointed because I 
cannot recapture the excitement I felt when I first read him. 

When I first read Lawrence in the late Twenties, it was his 
message which made the greatest impression on me, so that it 
was bis "think” books like Fantasia on the Unconscious rather 
than his fiction which I read most avidly. As for his poetry, 
when I first tried to read it, I did not like it; despite my admira- 
tion for him, it offended my notions of what poetry should be. 
Today my notions of what poetry should be are still, in all 
essentials, what they were then and hostile to his, yet there are 
a number of his poems which I have come to admire enor- 
mously. When a poet who holds views about the nature of 
poetry which we believe to be false writes a poem we like, we 
are apt to think: "This time he has forgotten his theory and is 
writing according to ours.” But what fascinates me about the 
poems of Lawrence’s which I like is that I must admit he 
could never have written them had he held the kind of views 
about poetry of which I approve. 

Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat 
his past nor leave it behind; at every moment he adds to and 
thereby modifies everything that had previously happened to 
him. Hence the difficulty of finding a single image which can 
stand as an adequate symbol for man’s kind of existence. If 
we think of his ever-open future, then the natural image is of a 
single pilgrim walking along an unending road into hitherto 
unexplored country; if we think of his never-forgettable past, 
then the natural image is of a great crowded city, built in every 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ 279 

style of architecture, in which the dead are as active citizens 
as the living. The only feature common to both images is that 
both are purposive; a road goes in a certain direction, a city 
is built to endure and be a home. The animals, who live in the 
present, have neither cities nor roads and do not miss them; 
they are at home in the wilderness and at most, if they are 
social, set up camps for a single generation. But man requires 
both; the image of a city with no roads leading away from it 
suggests a prison, the image of a road that starts from nowhere 
in particular, an animal spoor. 

Every man is both a citizen and a pilgrim, but most men are 
predominantly one or the other and in Lawrence the pilgrim 
almost obliterated the citizen. It is only natural, therefore, that 
he should have admired Whitman so much, both for his 
matter and his manner. 

Whitman’s essential message was the Open Road. The 
leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his 
fate to her and to the loom of the open road. . . . The true 
democracy . . . where all journey down the open road. 
And where a soul is known at once in its going. Not by 
its clothes or appearance. Not by its family name. Not 
even by its reputation. Not by works at all. The soul 
passing unenhanced, passing on foot, and being no more 
than itself. 

In his introduction to New Poems, Lawrence tries to explain 
the difference between traditional verse and the free verse 
which Whitman was the first to write. 

The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end 
must have that exquisite finality, perfection which be- 
longs to all that is far off. It is in the realm of all that 
is perfect ... the finality and perfection are conveyed in 
exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which 
returns upon itself like a dance where the hands link 
and loosen and link for the supreme moment of the 
end . . . But there is another kind of poetry, the poetry of 
that which is at hand: the immediate present. . . . Life, 

Two Bestmies 

280 ] 

the ever present, knows no finality, no finished crystallisa- 
tion. ... It is obvious that the poetry of the instant present 
cannot have the same body or the same motions as the 
poetry of the before and after. It can never submit to the 
same conditions, it is never finished. . . . Much has been 
written about free verse. But all that can be said, first 
and last, is that free verse is, or should be, direct utterance 
from the instant whole man. It is the soul and body 
surging at once, nothing left out. ... It has no finish. It 
has no satisfying stability. It does not want to get any- 
where. It just takes place. 

It would be easy to make fun of this passage, to ask Lawrence, 
for example, to tell us exactly how long an instant is, or how 
it would be physically possible for the poet to express it in 
writing before it had become past. But it is obvious that Law- 
rence is struggling to say something which he believes to be 
important. Very few statements which poets make about poetry, 
even when they appear to be quite lucid, are understandable 
except in their polemic context. To understand them, we 
need to know what they are directed against, what the poet 
who made them considered the principal enemies of genuine 

In Lawrence’s case, one enemy was the conventional re- 
sponse, the laziness or fear which makes people prefer second- 
hand experience to the shock of looking and listening for 

Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between 
himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached 
and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy 
of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! 
the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun. 
But after a while, getting used to the vision, and not 
liking the genuine draft from chaos, commonplace man 
daulx a simulacrum of the window that opens into chaos 
and patches the umbrella with the painted patch of 
the simulacrum. That is, he gets used to the vision; it is 
part of his house decoration. 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ 281 

Lawrence's justified dislike of the conventional response leads 
him into a false identification of the genuine with the novel. 
The image of the slit in the umbrella is misleading because 
what you can see through it will always be the same. But 
a genuine work of art is one in which every generation finds 
something new. A genuine work of art remains an example 
of what being genuine means, so that it can stimulate later 
artists to be genuine in their turn. Stimulate, not compel; if 
a playwright in the twentieth century chooses to write a 
play in a pastiche of Shakespearian blank verse, the fault 
is his, not Shakespeare’s. Those who are afraid of firsthand 
experience would find means of avoiding it if all the art 
of the past were destroyed. 

However, theory aside. Lawrence did care passionately 
about genuineness of feeling. He wrote little criticism about 
other poets who were his contemporaries, but, when he did, 
he was quick to pounce on any phoniness of emotion. About 
Ralph Hodgson’s lines 

The sky was lit. 

The sky was stars all over it, 

I stood, I knew not why 

he writes, “No one should say I knew not why any more. It 
is as meaningless as Yours truly at the end of a letter,’’ and, 
after quoting an American poetess 

Why do I think of stairways 
With a rush of hurt surprise? 

he remarks, “Heaven knows, my dear, unless you once fell 
down.” Whatever faults his own poetry may have, it never 
puts on an act. Even when Lawrence talks nonsense, as 
when he asserts that the moon is made of phosphorous or 
radium, one is convinced that it is nonsense in which he 
sincerely believed. This is more than can be said of some poets 
much greater than he. When Yeats assures me, in a stanza 
of the utmost magnificence, that after death he wants to be- 
come a mechanical bird, I feel that he is telling what my 
nanny would have called “A story.” 

Two Bestiaries 

281 ] 

Tlie second object of Lawrence’s polemic was a doctrine 
which first became popular in France during the second 
half of the nineteenth century, the belief that Art is the true 
religion, that life has no value except as material for a beauti- 
ful artistic structure and that, therefore, the artist is the only 
authentic human being — the rest, rich and poor alike, are 
canailte. Works of art are the only cities; life itself is a jungle. 
Lawrence’s feelings about this creed were so strong that when- 
ever he detects its influence, as he does in Proust and Joyce, 
he refuses their work any merit whatsoever. A juster and more 
temperate statement of his objection has been made by Dr. 
Auerbach : 

When wc compare Stendhal’s or even Balzac’s world 
with the world of Flaubert or the two Goncourts, the 
latter seems strangely narrow and petty despite its wealth 
of impressions. Documents of the kind represented by 
Flaubert’s correspondence and the Goncourt diary are 
indeed admirable in the purity and incorruptibility of 
their artistic ethics, the wealth of impressions elaborated 
in them, and their refinement of sensory culture. At the 
same time, however, we sense something narrow, some- 
thing oppressively close in their books. They are full of 
reality and intellect, but poor in humor and inner poise. 
The purely literary, even on the highest level of artistic 
acumen, limits the power of judgment, reduces the 
wealth of life, and at times distorts the outlook upon the 
world of phenomena. And while the writers contemptu- 
ously avert their attention from the political and eco- 
nomic bustle, consistently value life only as literary 
subject matter, and remain arrogantly and bitterly aloof 
from its great practical problems, in order to achieve 
aesthetic isolation for their work, often at great and 
daily expense of effort, the practical world nevertheless 
besets them in a thousand petty ways. 

Sometimes there are financial worries, and almost 
always there is nervous hypotension and a morbid con- 
cern with health. . . . What finally emerges, despite 

D. H. Laivrence 

1 183 

all their intellectual and artistic incorruptibility, is a 
strangely petty impression; that of an upper bourgeois 
egocentrically concerned over his aesthetic comfort, 
plagued by a thousand small vexations, nervous, obsessed 
by a mania — only in this case the mania is called “Liter- 
ature.” (Mimesis.) 

In rejecting the doctrine that life has no value except as 
raw material for art, Lawrence fell into another error, that of 
identifying art with life, making with action. 

I offer a bunch of pansies, not a wreath of immortelles. 

I don’t want everlasting flowers and I don’t want to 
offer them to anybody else. A flower passes, and that 
perhaps is the best of it. . . . Don’t nail the pansy down. 
You won’t keep it any better if you do. 

Here Lawrence draws a false analogy between the process 
of artistic creation and the organic growth of living creatures. 
“Nature hath no goal though she hath law.” Organic growth 
is a cyclical process; it is just as true to say that the oak is a 
potential acorn as it is to say the acorn is a potential oak. But 
the process of writing a poem, of making any art object, is not 
cyclical but a motion in one direction towards a definite end. 
As Socrates says in Valery’s dialogue Eupedinos: 

The tree does not construct its branches and leaves; nor 
the cock his beak and feathers. But the tree and all its 
parts, or the cock and all his, are constructed by the 
principles themselves, which do not exist apart from 
the constructing. . . . But, in the objects made by man, 
the principles are separate from the construction, and are, 
as it were, imposed by a tyrant from without upon the 
material, to which he imparts them by acts. ... If a 
man waves his arm, we distinguish this arm from his 
gesture, and we conceive between gesture and arm a 
purely possible relation. But from the point of view of 
nature, this gesture of the arm and the arm itself cannot 
be separated. 

Two Bestiaries 

284 ] 

An artist who ignores this difference between natural growth 
and human construction will produce the exact opposite of 
what he intends. He hopes to produce something which will 
seem as natural as a flower, but the qualities of the natural 
are exactly what his product will lack. A natural object never 
appears unfinished; if it is an inorganic object like a stone, 
it is what it has to be, if an organic object like a flower, what 
it has to be at this moment. But a similar effect — of being what 
it has to be — can only be achieved in a work of art by much 
thought, labor and care. The gesture of a ballet dancer, for 
example, only looks natural when, through long practice, its 
execution has become “second nature” to him. T^at perfect 
incarnation of life in substance, word in flesh, which in 
nature is immediate, has in art to be achieved and, in fact, 
can never be perfectly achieved. In many of Lawrence’s 
poems, the spirit has failed to make itself a fit body to live in, 
a curious defect in the work of a writer who was so conscious 
of the value and significance of the body. In his essay on 
Thomas Hardy, Lawrence made some acute observations about 
this very problem. Speaking of the antimony between Law 
and Love, the Flesh and the Spirit, he says 

The principle of the Law is found strongest in Woman, 
the principle of Love in Man. In every creature, the 
mobility, the law of change is found exemplified in the 
male, the stability, the conservatism in the female. 

The very adherence of rhyme and regular rhythm is 
a concession to the Law, a concession to the body, to the 
being and requirements of the body. They are an admis- 
sion of the living positive inertia which is the other half 
of life, other than the pure will to motion. 

This division of Lawrence’s is a variant on the division be- 
tween the City and the Open Road. To the mind of the pil- 
grim, his journey is a succession of ever-new sights and sounds, 
but to his heart and legs, it is a rhythmical repetition — tic- 
toc, left-right — even the poetry of the Open Road must pay 
that much homage to the City. By his own admission and 
definition Lawrence’s defect as an artist was an exaggerated 

D. H. Laurence 

[ 285 

Reading Lawrence’s early poems, one is continually struck 
by the originality of the sensibility and the conventionzility of 
the expressive means. For most immature poets, their chief 
problem is to learn to forget what they have been taught poets 
are supposed to feel; too often, as Lawrence says, the young 
man is afraid of his demon, puts his hand over the demon’s 
mouth and speaks for him. On the other hand, an immature 
poet, if he has real talent, usually begins to exhibit quite 
early a distinctive style of his own; however obvious the in- 
fluence of some older writer may be, there is something 
original in his manner or, at least, great technical competence. 
In Lawrence’s case, this was not so; he learned quite soon to 
let his demon speak, but it took him a long time to find the 
appropriate style for him to speak in. All too often in his early 
poems, even the best ones, he is content to versify his thoughts; 
there is no essential relation between what he is saying and the 
formal structure he imposes upon it. 

Being nothing, I bear the brunt 

Of the nightly heavens overhead, like an immense open 

With a cat’s distended pupil, that sparkles with little 

And with thoughts that flash and crackle in far-off 

So distant, they cannot touch me, whom nothing mars. 

A mere poetaster with nothing to say, would have done some- 
thing about whom nothing mars. 

It is interesting to notice that the early poems in which he 
seems technically most at ease and the form most natural, are 
those he wrote in dialect. 

I wish tha hadna done it, Tim, 

I do, an’ that I do. 

For whenever I look thee i’th’ face, I s’ll see 
Her face too. 

I wish I could wash er ofp n thee; 

’Appen I can. If I try. 

286 ] Two Bestiaries 

But tha’ll ha’e ter promise ter be true ter me 
TiU I die. 

This sounds like a living woman talking, whereas no woman 
on earth ever talked like this: 

How did you love him, you who only roused 
His mind until it burnt his heart away! 

'Twas you who killed him, when you both caroused 
In words and things well said. But the other way 
He never loved you, never with desire 
Touched you to fire. 

I suspect that Lawrence’s difficulties with formal verse had 
their origin in his linguistic experiences as a child. 

My father was a working man 
and a collier was he. 

At six in the morning they turned him down 
and they turned him up for tea. 

My mother was a superior soul 
a superior soul was she, 
cut out to play a superior role 

in the god-damn bourgoisie. 

We children were the in-betweens. 

Little non-descripts were we. 

In doors we called each other you 
outside it was tka and thee. 

In formal poetry, the role played by the language itself is so 
great that it demands of the poet that he be as intimate with 
it as with his own flesh and blood and love it with a single- 
minded passion. A child who has associated standard English 
with Mother and dialect with Father has ambivalent feelings 
about both which can hardly fail to cause trouble for him in 
later life if he should try to write formal poetry. Not that it 
would have been possible for Lawrence to become a dialect poet 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ 187 

like Bums or William Barnes, both of whom lived before public 
educatirm had made dialect quaint. The language of Bums was 
a national not a parochial speech, and the peculiar charm of 
Barnes’ poetry is its combination of the simplest emotions with 
an extremely sophisticated formal technique: Lawrence could 
never have limited himself to the thoughts and feelings of a 
Nottinghamshire mining village, and he had neither the taste 
nor the talent of Barnes for what he scornfully called word 

Most of Lawrence’s finest poems are to be found in the volume 
Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, begun in Tuscany when he was 
thirty-five and finished three years later in New Mexico. All 
of them are written in free verse. 

The difference between formal and free verse may be 
likened to the difference between carving and modeling; the 
formal poet, that is to say, thinks of the poem he is writing as 
something already latent in the language which he has to re- 
veal, while the free verse poet thin^ of language as a plastic 
passive medium upon which he imposes his artistic conception. 
One might also say that, in their attitude towards art, the 
formal verse writer is a catholic, the free verse writer a 
protestant. And Lawrence was, in every respect, very protestant 
indeed. As he himself acknowledged, it was through Whitman 
that he found himself as a poet, found the right idiom of poetic 
speech for his demon. 

On no other English poet, so far as I know, has Whitman 
had a beneficial influence; he could on Lawrence because, 
despite certain superficial resemblances, their sensibilities were 
utterly different. Whitman quite consciously set out to be the 
Epic Bard of America and created a poetic persona for the 
purpose. He keeps using the first person singular and even his 
own name, but these stand for a persona, not an actual human 
being, even when he appears to he talking about the most 
intimate experiences. When he sounds ridiculous, it is usually 
because the image of an individual obtrudes itself comically 
upon what is meant to be a statement about a collective ex- 
perience. I am large. I contain multitudes is absurd if one 

Two Bestiaries 

288 ] 

thinks of Whitman himself or any individual; of a corporate 
person like General Motors it makes perfectly good sense. The 
more we learn about Whitman the man, the less like his per- 
sona he looks. On the other hand it is doubtful if a writer ever 
existed who had less of an artistic persona than Lawrence; from 
his letters and the reminiscences of his friends, it would seem 
that he wrote for publication in exactly the same way as he 
spoke in private. (I must confess that I find Lawrence’s love 
poems embarrassing because of their lack of reticence; they 
make me feel a Peeping Tom.) Then, Whitman looks at life 
extensively rather than intensively. No detail is dwelt upon 
for long; it is snapshotted and added as one more item to the 
vast American catalogue. But Lawrence in his best poems is 
always concerned intensively with a single subject, a bat, a 
tortoise, a fig tree, which he broods on until he has exhausted 
its possibilities. 

A sufficient number of years have passed for us to have 
gotten over both the first overwhelming impact of Lawrence’s 
genius and the subsequent violent reaction when we realized 
that there were silly and nasty sides to his nature. We can be 
grateful to him for what he can do for us, without claiming 
that he can do everything or condemning him because he 
cannot. As an analyst and portrayer of the forces of hatred and 
aggression which exist in all human beings and, from time to 
time, manifest themselves in nearly all human relationships, 
Lawrence is, probably, the greatest master who ever lived. But 
that was absolutely all that he knew and understood about 
human beings; about human affection and human charity, for 
example, he knew absolutely nothing. The truth is that he 
detested nearly all human beings if he had to be in close con- 
tact with them; his ideas of what a human relationship, be- 
tween man and man or man and woman, ought to be are pure 
daydreams because they are not based upon any experience of 
actual relationships which might be improved or corrected. 
Whenever, in his novels and short stories, he introduces a 
character whom he expects the reader to admire, he or she is 
always an unmitigated humorless bore, but the more he dis- 
likes his characters the more interesting he makes them. And, 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ 289 

in his heart of hearts, Lawrence knew this himself. There is a 
sad passage in An Autohiographical Sketch: 

Why is there so little contact between myself and the 
people I know? The answer, as far as I can see, has some- 
thing to do with class. As a man from the working class, I 
feel that the middle class cut off some of my vital vibra- 
tion when I am with them. I admit them charming and 
good people often enough, but they just stop some part of 
me from working. 

Then, why don’t I live with my own people? Because 
their vibration is limited in another direction. The work- 
ing class is narrow in outlook, in prejudice, and narrow in 
intelligence. This again makes a prison. Yet I find, here 
in Italy, for example, that I live in a certain contact with 
the peasants who work the land of this villa. I am not 
intimate with them, hardly speak to them save to say 
good-day. And they are not working for me. I am not 
their padrone. I don’t want to live with them in their cot- 
tages; that would be a sort of prison. I don’t idealise them. 

I don’t expect them to make any millenium here on earth, 
neither now nor in the future. But I want them to be 
there, about the place, their lives going along with mine. 

For the word peasants, one might substitute the words birds, 
beasts and flowers. Lawrence possessed a great capacity for 
affection and charity, but he could only direct it towards non- 
human life or peasants whose lives were so uninvolved with 
his that, so far as he was concerned, they might just as well 
have been nonhuman. Whenever, in his writings, he forgets 
about men and women with proper names and describes the 
anonymous life of stones, waters, forests, animals, flowers, 
chance traveling companions or passers-by, his bad temper and 
his dogmatism immediately vanish and he becomes the most 
enchanting companion imaginable, tender, intelligent, funny 
and, above all, happy. But the moment any living thing, even 
a dog, makes demands on him, the rage and preaching return. 
His poem about “Bibbles,” "the wait whitmanesque love-bitch 
who loved just eveiybbdy,” is the best poem about a dog 

Two Bestiaries 

290 ] 

ever written, but it makes it clear that Lawrence was no person 
to be entrusted with the care of a dog. 

All right, my little hitch. 

You learn loyalty rather than loving. 

And I'll protect you. 

To which Bibhles might, surely, with justice retort: “O for 
Chris-sake, mister, go get yourself an Alsatian and leave me 
alone, can’t you.” 

The poems in Birds, Beasts, and Flowers are among Law- 
rence’s longest. He was not a concise writer and he needs 
room to make his effect. In his poetry he manages to make a 
virtue out of what in his prose is often a vice, a tendency to 
verbal repetition. The recurrence of identical or slightly varied 
phrases helps to give his free verse a structure; the phrases 
themselves are not particularly striking, but this is as it should 
be, for their function is to act as stitches. 

Like the romantics, Lawrence’s starting point in these poems 
is a personal encounter between himself and some animal or 
flower but, unlike the romantics, he never confuses the feel- 
ings they arouse in him with what he sees and hears and 
knows about them. 

Thus, he accuses Keats, very justly, I think, of being so 
preoccupied with his own feelings that he cannot really listen 
to the nightingale. Thy 'plaintive anthem fades deserves Law- 
rence’s comment: It never was a plaintive anthem — it was 
Caruso at his jauntiest. 

Lawrence never forgets — indeed this is what he likes most 
about them — that a plant or an animal has its own kind of 
existence which is unlike and uncomprehending of man’s. 

It is no use my saying to him in an emotional voice: 

‘This is your Mother, she laid you when you were an 


He does not even trouble to answer: ‘Woman, what 
have I to do with thee?’ 

He wearily looks the other way. 

And she even more wearily looks another way still. 

C‘‘Tortoise Family Connections.”) 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ ^ 9 ^ 

But watching closer 

That motionless deadly motion, 

That unnatural barrel body, that long ghoul nose . . . 

I left off hailing him. 

I had made a mistake, I didn’t know him, 

This grey, monotonous soul in the water. 

This intense individual in shadow. 


I didn’t know his God. 


When discussing people or ideas, Lawrence is often turgid and 
obscure, but when, as in these poems, he is contemplating 
some object with love, the lucidity of his language matches 
the intensity of his vision, and he can make the reader see 
what he is saying as very few writers can. 

Queer, with your thin wings and your streaming legs. 
How you sail like a heron, or a dull clot of air. 

("The Mosquito.”) 

Her little loose hands, and sloping Victorian shoulders 


There she is, perched on her manger, looking over the 
boards into the day 
Like a belle at her window. 

And immediately she sees me she blinks, stares, doesn’t 
know me, turns her head and ignores me vulgarly 
with a wooden blank on her face. 

What do I care for her, the ugly female, standing up 
there with her long tangled sides like an old rug 
thrown over a fence. 

But she puts her nose down shrewdly enough when the 
knot is untied. 

And jumps staccato to earth, a sharp, dry jump, still 
ignoring me. 

Pretending to look around the stall 
Come on, you crofol I'm not your servant. 

Two Bestiaries 

292 ] 

She turns her head away with an obtuse female sort 
of deafness, b^te. 

And then invariably she crouches her rear and makes 

That being her way of answer, if I speak to her. — Self- 

Le hestie non parlano, -poverinel . . . 

Queer it is, suddenly, in the garden 

To catch sight of her standing like some huge ghoulish 
grey bird in the air, on the bough of the leaning 

Straight as a board on the bough, looking down like 
some hairy horrid God the Father in a William 
Blake imagination. 

Come, down, Crapa, out of that almond tree! 


In passages like these, Lawrence’s writing is so transparent 
that one forgets him entirely and simply sees what he saw. 

Birds, Beasts, and Flowers is the peak of Lawrence’s 
achievement as a poet. There are a number of fine things 
in the later volumes, but a great deal that is tedious, both in 
subject matter and form. A writer’s doctrines are not the busi- 
ness of a literary critic except in so far as they touch upon 
questions which concern the art of writing; if a writer makes 
statements about nonliterary matters, it is not for the literary 
critic to ask whether they are true or false but he may legiti- 
mately question the writer’s authority to make them. 

'The Flauberts and the Goncourts considered social and 
political questions beneath them; to his credit, Lawrence 
knew that there are many questions that are more important 
than Art with an A, but it is one thing to know this and 
another to believe one is in a position to answer them. 

In the modem world, a man who earns his living by writing 
novels and poems is a self-employed worker whose customers 
are not his neighbors, and this makes him a social oddity. He 
may work extremely hard, but his manner of life is something 

•D. H. Lawrence [ 293 

between that of a rentier and a gypsy, he can live where he 
likes and know only the people he chooses to know. He has 
no firsthand knowledge of all those involuntary relationships 
created by social, economic and political necessity. Very few 
artists can be engage because life does not engage them: for 
better or worse, they do not quite belong to the City. And 
Lawrence, who was self-employed after the age of twenty-six, 
belonged to it less than most. Some writers have spent their 
lives in the same place and social milieu; Lawrence kept con- 
stantly moving from one place and one country to another. 
Some have been extroverts who entered fully into whatever 
society happened to be available; Lawrence’s nature made 
him avoid human contacts as much as possible. Most writers 
have at least had the experience of parenthood and its re- 
sponsibilities; this experience was denied Lawrence. It was 
inevitable, therefore, that when he tried to lay down the law 
about social and political matters, money, machinery, etc., he 
could only be negative and moralistic because, since his youth, 
he had had no firsthand experiences upon which concrete 
and positive suggestions could have been based. Furthermore, 
if, like Lawrence, the only aspects of human beings which 
you care for and value are states of being, timeless moments 
of passionate intensity, then social and political life, which are 
essentially historical — without a past and a future, human so- 
ciety is inconceivable — must be, for you, the worthless aspects 
of human life. You cannot honestly say, “This kind of society 
is preferable to that,” because, for you, society is wholly given 
over to Satan. 

The other defect in many of the later poems is a formal one. 
It is noticeable that the best are either of some length or 
rhymed; the short ones in free verse very rarely come off. A 
poem which contains a number of ideas and feelings can be 
organized in many different ways, but a poem which makes 
a single point and is made up of no more than one or two 
sentences can only be organized verbally; an epigram or an 
aphorism must be written either in prose or in some strictly 
measured verse; written in free verse, it will sound like prose 
arbitrarily chopped up. 

Two Bestiaries 

294 ] 

It has always seemed to me that a real thought, not an 
argument can only exist in verse, or in some poetic form. 
There is a didactic element about prose thoughts which 
makes them repellent, slightly bullying, “He who hath 
wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” There 
is a point well put: but immediately it irritates by its 
assertiveness. If it were put into poetry, it would not nag 
at us so practically. We don’t want to be nagged at. 

(Preface to "Pansies.”) 

Though I personally love good prose aphorisms, I can see 
what Lawrence means. If one compares 

Plus qa change, plus v est la mime chose 


The accursed power that stands on Privilege 
And goes with Women and Champagne and Bridge 
Broke, and Democracy resumed her reign 
That goes w'ith Bridge and Women and Champagne 

the first does seem a bit smug and a bit abstract, while, in the 
second, the language dances and is happy. 

The bourgeois produced the Bolshevist inevitably 
As every half-truth at length produces the contradiction 
of itself 

In the opposite half-truth 

has the worst of both worlds; it lacks the conciseness of the 
prose and the jollity of the rhymed verse. 

The most interesting verses in the last poems of Lawrence 
belong to a literary genre he had not attempted before, satir- 
ical dc^erel. 

If formal verse can be likened to carving, free verse to 
modeling, then one might say that doggerel verse is like objets 
trouves — the piece of driftwood that looks like a witch, the 
stone that has a profile. The writer of doggerel, as it were, 
takes any old words, rhythms and rhymes that come into his 

D. H. Lawrence 

[ ^95 

head, elves them a good shake and then throws them onto the 
page like dice where, lo and behold, contrary to all probability 
they make sense, not by law but by chance. Since the words 
appear to have no will of their own, but to be the puppets 
of chance, so will the things or persons to which they refer, 
hence the value of doggerel for a certain kind of satire. 

It is a different kind of satire from that written by Dryden 
and Pope. Their kind presupposes a universe, a city, governed 
by, or .owing allegiance to, certain eternal laws of reason and 
morality; the purpose of their satire is to demonstrate that the 
individual or institution they are attacking violates these laws. 
Consequently, the stricter in form their verse, the more artful 
their technique, the more effective it is. Satirical doggerel, on 
the other hand, presupposes no fixed laws. It is the weapon 
of the outsider, the anarchist rebel, who refuses to accept con- 
ventional laws and pieties as binding or worthy of respect. 
Hence its childish technique, for the child represents the 
naive and personal, as yet uncorrupted by education and 
convention. Satire of the Pope kind says: “The Emperor is 
wearing a celluloid collar. That simply isn’t done.” Satiric 
doggerel cries: “The Emperor is naked.” 

At this kind of satiric doggerel, Lawrence turned out to 
be a master. 

And Mr. Meade, that old old lily. 

Said: “Gross, coarse, hideous!” and I, like a silly 

Thought he meant the faces of the police court 

And how right he was, so I signed my initials. 

But Tolstoi was a traitor 

To the Russia that needed him most. 

The great bewildered Russia 
So worried by the Holy Ghost; 

He shifted his job onto the peasants 
And landed them all on toast. 

Parnassus has many mansions. 


Why an inordinate interest in animals and 
athletes? They are subjects for art and exem- 
plars of it, are they not? minding their own busi- 
ness. Pangolins, hombills, pitchers, catchers, do 
not pry or prey — or prolong the conversation; do 
not make us self-conscious; look their best when 
caring least; although in a Frank Buck docu- 
mentary, I saw a leopard insult a crocodile 
(basking on the river bank — head only visible 
on the bank) — bat the animal on the nose and 
continue on its way without so muck as a look 

When I first read Lawrence’s poetry, I didn’t like it much,, 
but I had no difficulty in understanding it. But when in 1935, 
I first tried to read Marianne Moore’s poems, I simply could 
not make head or tail of them. To begin with, I could not 
“hear” the verse. One may have a prejudice against Free 
Verse as such but, if it is in any way competently written, 
the ear immediately hears where one line ends and another 
begins, for each line represents either a speech unit or a 
thought unit. Accent has always played so important a role 
in English prosody that no Englishman, even if he has been 

Marianne Moore 

[ 297 

brought up on the poetry written according to the traditional 
English prosodic convention in which lines are scanned by 
accentual feet, iambics, trochees, anapaests, etc., has any diffi- 
culty in reco^izing as formal and rhythmical a poem, like 
Christabel or The Wreck of the Deutschland, which is written 
in an accentual meter. But a syllabic verse, like Miss 
Moore's, in which accents and feet are ignored and only the 
number of syllables count, is very difficult for an English ear 
to grasp. One of our problems with the French alexandrine, 
for example, is that, whatever we may know intellectually 
about French prosody, our ear cannot help hearing most alex- 
andrines as anapaestic verse which, in English poetry, we 
associate with light verse. Try as one may to forget it, Je le 
vois, je lui parle; et mon coeur . . . Je m'egare reminds us of 
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold. But, at least, 
in listening to Racine all the lines have twelve syllables. Before 
I had encountered Miss Moore’s verse, I was well acquainted 
with Robert Bridges’s syllabic experiments, but he confined 
his verses to a regular succession of either six-syllable or 
tv/elve-syllable lines. A typical poem by Miss Moore, on the 
other hand, is written in stanzas, containing anything from 
one up to twenty syllables, not infrequently a word is split up 
with one or more of its syllables at the end of a line and the 
rest of them at the beginning of the next, caesuras fall where 
they may and, as a rule, some of the lines rhyme and some 
are unrhymed. TTiis, for a long time, I found very difficult. 
Then, I found her process of thinking very hard to follow. 
Rimbaud seemed child’s play compared with a passage like 

they are to me 

like enchanted Earl Gerald who 
changes himself into a stag, to 
a great green-eyed cat of 
the mountain. Discommodity makes 
them invisible; they’ve dis- 
appeared. The Irish say your trouble is their 

Two Bestiaries 

298 ] 

trouble and your 

joy their joy? I wish 
I could believe it; 

I am troubled, Tm dissatisfied, I’m Irish. 

Uncomprehending as I was, I felt attracted by the tone 
of voice, so I persevered and I am very thankful that I did, 
for today there are very few poets who give me more pleasure 
to read. What I did see from the first was that she is a pure 
"Alice.” She has all the Alice qualities, the distaste for noise 
and excess: 

Poets, don’t make a fuss; 
the elephants ‘crooked trumpet’ ‘doth write;’ 
and to a tiger-book I am reading — 

I think you know the one — 

I am under obligation. 

One may be pardoned, yes I know 
one may, for love undying. 

The passion for setting people right is in itself 
an afflictive disease. 

Distaste which takes no credit to itself is best 
the fastidiousness: 

I remember a swan under the willows in Oxford, 
with flamingo-coloured, maple- 
leaflike feet. It reconnoitred like a battle- 
ship. Disbelief and conscious fastidiousness were 

the staple 

ingredients in its 

disinclination to move. Finally its hardihood 
was not proof against its 
proclivity to more fully appraise such bits 
of food as the stream 

bore counter to it; it made away with what I gave it 
to eat. I have seen this swan and 

Marianne Moore 

[ 199 

I have seen you; I have seen ambition without 
understanding in a variety of forms 

the love of order and precision: 

And as 

MEridian one-two 
one-two gives, each fifteenth second 
in the same voice, the new 
data — “The time will be” so and so — 
you realize that “when you 
hear the signal,” you’ll be 
hearing Jupiter or jour pater, the day god — 
the salvaged son of Father Time — 
telling the cannibal Chronos 
(eater of his proximo 
new-born progeny) that punctuality 
is not a crime 

the astringent ironical sharpness: 

One may be a blameless 
bachelor and it is but a 
step to Congreve. 

She says, “This butterfly, 
this waterfly, this nomad 
that has ‘proposed 
to settle on my hand for life’. — 
what can one do with it. 

There must have been more time 
in Shakespeare’s day 
to sit and watch a play. 

You know so many artists who are fools.” 

He says; “You know so many fools 
who are not artists.” 

Two Bestiaries 

300 ] 

Like Lawrence’s, many of Miss Moore’s best poems are, overtly, 
at least, about animals. Animals have made their appearance 
in literature in a number of ways. 

1 ) The beast fable. In these, the actors have animals’ bodies 
but human consciousness. Sometimes the intention is simply 
amusing entertainment, but more often it is educative. The 
fable may be a mythical explanation of how things came to 
be as they are, and the beast in it may be a folk-culture hero 
whose qualities of courage or cunning are to be imitated. Or 
again, though this is a later historical development, the fable 
may be satirical. What prevents man, individually and col- 
lectively, from behaving reasonably and morally is not so 
much ignorance as a self-blindness induced by some passion 
or desire. In a satirical beast fable, the beast has the desires of 
his kind which are different from those which govern man, so 
that we can view them with detachment and cannot fail to rec- 
ognize what is good or bad, sensible or foolish behavior. In a 
beast fable, the descriptions of animal life cannot be realistic, 
for its basic premise of a self-conscious speaking animal is 
fantastic. If a human being is introduced into a beast fable, as 
Mr. MacGregor is introduced into Peter Rabbit, he appears 
not as a man but as a God. 

2) The animal simile. This can be expressed in the form: 

as an a behaves so acted N 

where a is a species of animal with a typical way of behaving 
and N is the proper name of a human individual, mythical 
or historical, acting in a historical situation. The description 
of animals in an epic simile is more realistic than it is in the 
beast fable, but what is described is the behavior considered 
typical for that animal; everything else about it is irrelevant. 

Homer’s animal similes are more than merely ways of 
catching a mood or an impression, more than attempts to 
place an event in greater relief by stressing external sim- 
ilarities. When Homer has someone go against his ene- 
mies “like a lion,” we must take him at his word. The 
warrior and the lion are activated by the same force; on 

Marianne Moore 

I 301 

more than one occasion this force is expressly stated to be 
the menos, the forward impulse. The animals of the 
Homeric similes are not only symbols, but the particular 
embodiments of universal vital forces. Homer has little 
regard for anything except the forces in them, and that is 
the reason why animals are more prominent in the similes 
than in the narrative itself. By themselves they hold next 
to no interest for him. 

In the clearly defined, the typical forms within which 
nature has allocated her gifts among the beasts, men find 
the models for gauging their own responses and emotions; 
they are the mirror in which man sees himself. The 
sentence: “Hector is as a lion,” besides constituting a 
comparison, besides focussing the formlessness of human 
existence against a characteristic type, also signalises 
a factual connection, (bruno snell, The Discovery of 

3) The animal as an allegorical emblem. The significance of 
an emblem is not, like a simile, self-evident. The artist who 
uses one must either assume that his audience already knows 
the symbolic association — it is a legend of the culture to which 
he belongs — or, if it is his own invention, he must explain 
it. A Buddhist, for instance, looking at a painting of the 
Christ Child in which there is a goldfinch, may know enough 
ornithology to recognize it as a goldfinch and to know that it 
eats (or used to be thouglit to eat) thorns, but he cannot pos- 
sibly understand why the bird is there unless it is explained 
to him that Christians associate thorns, the goldfinch’s sup- 
posed diet, with the crown of thorns Christ wore at his cruci- 
fixion; the painter has introduced the goldfinch into his picture 
of the Christ Child to remind the spectator that Christmas, 
an occasion for rejoicing, is necessarily related to Good Friday, 
an occasion for mourning. 

The painter may have represented the bird as naturalistically 
as possible in order that the spectator shall not mistake it for 
some other bird, a woodpecker, for instance, which, because 
it bores holes in trees, is an emblem for Satan who undermines 

Two Bestiaries 

302 1 

human nature, but correct identification is all that matters; 
there is no visual resemblance between the emblem and its 
meani^. In poetry, the mere name would be sufficient. 

4) The romantic encounter of man and beast. In such an 
encounter, the animal provides an accidental stimulus to the 
thoughts and emotions of a human individual. As a rule, the 
characteristics of the animal which make it a stimulus are not 
those in which it resembles man — as in the epic simile — but 
those in which it is unlike him. A man whose beloved has 
died or left him, hears a thrush singing and the song recalls 
to him an evening when he and his beloved listened together 
to another thrush singing. There are two thrushes and one 
man, but, while the songs of the two thrushes are identical — 
thrush-life does not change and knows nothing of unhappy 
love — the man hearing the second is changed from what he 
was when he heard the first. Since, in these encounters, the 
nature of the animal itself has little, if anything, to do with 
the thoughts and emotions he provokes in the human individ- 
ual, realistic description counts for litde. Very few of the 
famous romantic poems concerned with animals are accurate 
in their natural history. 

5) Animals as objects of human interest and affection. Ani- 
mals play an important economic role in the lives of hunts- 
men and farmers, many people keep them as pets, every major 
city in our culture has a zoo where exotic animals are on 
public exhibition, and some people are naturalists who are 
more interested in animals than in anything else. If an 
animal lover happens also to be a poet, it is quite possible that 
he will write poems about the animals he loves and, if he does, 
he will describe them in the same way that he would describe 
a friend, that is to say, every detail of the animal’s appearance 
and behavior will interest him. It is almost impossible to make 
such a description communicable to others except in anthro- 
pomorphic terms, so that, in the animal lover’s poetry, the 
order of the Homeric simile is reversed and takes the form: 

as n looks or acts so does A 

where n is a typical class of human being and A is an indi- 
vidual animal. Its grace and charm are conveyed by likening 

Marianne Moore [ 303 

it to some instance of what makes some human beings admir- 
able; sometimes, too, like Lawrence, the animal lover goes 
further and contrasts the virtue of a beast with the vices and 
follies of man. 

Overtly, Miss Moore’s animal poems are those of a naturalist; 
the animals she selects are animals she likes — the one excep- 
tion is the cobra, and the point of the poem is that we, not the 
cobra, are to be blamed for our subjective fear and dislike — 
and nearly all of her animals are exotic, to be seen normally 
only in zoos or photographs by explorers; she has only one 
poem about a common domestic pet. 

Like Lawrence, she has an extraordinary gift for meta- 
phorical comparisons which make the reader see what she 
has seen. The metaphors may be drawn from other animals 
and plants. Thus, she describes a tomcat’s face; 

the small tuft of fronds 
or katydid-legs above each eye, still numbering the 
units in each group; 

the shadbones regularly set about the mouth, to 
droop or rise 

in unison like the porcupine quills — motionless. 

The firs stand in a procession, each with an 

emerald turkey-foot at the top, 
reserved in their contours, saying nothing 

the lion’s ferocious chrysanthemum head 
Or the metaphors may be taken from human artifacts, 
pillar body erect 

on a three-cornered smooth-working chippendale claw. 

(“The Jerboa.”) 

the intensively 
watched eggs coming from 
the shell free it when they are freed, 
leaving its wasp-nest flaws 

Two Bestiaries 

304 1 

of white on white and close- 
laid Ionic chiton-folds 
like the lines in the mane of 
a Parthenon horse 

(“The Paper Nautilus.”) 

And on occasion, she uses an elaborate reversed epic simile. 
As impassioned Handel — 

meant for a lawyer and a masculine German domestic 
career — clandestinely studied the harpsichord 
and never was known to have fallen in love, 
the unconfiding frigate-bird hides 
in the height and in the majestic 
display of his art. 

(“The Frigate Pelican.”) 

But, unlike Lawrence, she likes the human race. For all the 
evil he does, man is, for her, a more sacred being than an 

Bedizened or stark 

naked, man, the self, the being we call human, 
writing — 

master to this world, griffons a dark 

“Like does not like like that is obnoxious” — and 

writes error with four 
r’s. Among animals, one has a sense of humour. 

Humour saves a few steps, it saves yours. Unignorant, 
modest and unemotional, and all emotion, 
he has everlasting vigour, 
power to grow 

though there are few creatures who can make one 
breathe faster and make one erecter. 

The approach of her poetry is that of a naturalist but, really, 
their theme is almost always the Good Life. Sometimes, as in 
the bestiaries, she sees an animal as an emblem — the devil- 
fish, so frightening to look at, because of the care she takes 

Marianne Moore 

[ 305 

of her eggs becomes an emblem of charity, the camel-sparrow 
an emblem of justice, the jerboa-rat an emblem of true free- 
dom as contrasted with the false freedom of the conqueror- 
tyrant — and sometimes, as in the beast fable, the behavior of 
animals is presented as a moral paradigm. Occasionally, as in 
“Elephants,” the moral is direct, but, as a rule, the reader has 
to perceive it for himself. 

The “Pangolin,” written during the war, is a longish poem 
— ^nine stanzas of eleven lines each — but it is not until the 
end of the seventh stanza that a direct likeness between the 
pangolin and man is drawn: 

in fighting, mechanicked 
like the pangolin. 

On the one hand, the pangolin is an enchanting animal; on 
the other, it is a great honor to be created a human being. 
But the one way in which men can physically resemble 
pangolins is by putting on armor and this should not have to 
be necessary. The pangolin’s armor is an adaptation which 
secures his survival, for he is an ant-eater; as creatures go, he 
is unpugnacious and unaggressive. But man wears armor 
because he is an aggressive creature full of hatred for and fear 
of his own kind. The moral: men ought to be gentle-natured 
like pangolins but, if they were, they would cease to look 
like pangolins, and the pangolin could not be an emblem. 

Miss Moore’s poems are an example of a kind of art which 
is not as common as it should be; they delight, not only be- 
cause they are intelligent, sensitive and beautifully written, 
but also because they convince the reader that they have been 
written by someone who is personally good. Questioned about 
the relation between art and morals. Miss Moore herself has 

Must a man be good to wnrite good poems? The vil- 
lains in Shakespeare are not illiterate, are they? But 
rectitude has a ring that is implicative, I would say. 
And with no integrity, a man is not likely to write the 
kind of book I read. 




America where there 
is the little old ramshackle victoria in the south, 
where cigars are smoked on the 
street in the north; where there are no proof- 
readers, no silk-worms, no digressions; 
the wild man's land; grassless linksless, language- 
less country in which letters are written 
not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not 
in shorthand, 

hut in plain American which cats and dogs can 


Two of James’ virtues, his self-knowledge, his awareness of 
just what he could and could not do, and his critical literary 
sense, his respect for the inalienable right of every subject to 
its own form and treatment, are nowhere more conspicuous 
than in The American Scene. 

Of all possible subjects, travel is the most difficult for an 
artist, as it is the easiest for a journalist. For the latter, the 
interesting event is the new, the extraordinary, the comic, the 
shocking, and all that the peripatetic journalist requires is a 
flair for being on the spot where and when such events happen 


310 ] 

— the rest is merely passive typewriter thumping: meaning, 
relation, importance, are not his quarry. The artist, on the 
other hand, is deprived of his most treasured liberty, the 
freedom to invent; successfully to extract importance from his- 
torical personal events without ever departing from them, free 
only to select and never to modify or to add, calls for imagina- 
tion of a very high order. 

Few writers have had less journalistic talent than James, 
and this is his defect, for the supreme masters have one trait 
in common with the childish scribbling mass, the vulgar curi- 
osity of a police-court reporter. One can easily imagine 
Stendhal or Tolstoi or Dostoievslci becoming involved in a 
barroom fight, but James, never. I have read somewhere a 
story that once, when James was visiting a French friend, the 
latter’s mistress, unobserved, filled his top hat with cham- 
pagne, but I do not believe it because, try as I will, I simply 
cannot conceive what James did and said when he put his 
hat on. 

James was, of course, well aware of this limitation; he knew 
that both his character and circumstances confined his resi- 
dence to a certain kind of house or hotel, his intimate ac- 
quaintance to a certain social class, and that such confine- 
ment might be an insuperable obstacle to writing a book of 
travel in which the author must try to catch the spirit, not of 
a particular milieu, but of a whole place, a whole social 
order. Nevertheless, the challenge, perhaps just because it 
was, for him, so particularly formidable, fascinated James from 
the first, and The American Scene is only the latest, most am- 
bitious and best of a series of topographical writings, beginning 
in 1870 with sketches of Saratoga and Newport. 

Immature as these early American pieces are, they seem to 
me more satisfactory than the subsequent descriptions of Eng- 
land and Europe, even the charming A Little Tour in 
France (1886). Confronted with the un-American scene, he 
seems prim and a little amateurish, as if he were a conscien- 
tious father writing letters to an intelligent daughter of four- 
teen; as guidebooks, the European travelogues are incomplete, 
and as personal impressions, they are timid; the reader is 

The American Scene 

[ 3 ” 

conscious that the traveler must have seen and felt a great deal 
more than he says, and refrained either from a fear of shock- 
ing or from a lack of confidence in his own judgment; but 
even as a young man, James was unafraid of America as 'a 
subject: puzzlea often, angry sometimes, yes, but quite certain 
of what he felt and of his right to say it. 

In letters directly and in his novels by implication James 
makes many criticisms of the English, but he would never 
have been so outspoken about them as he is, for instance, about 
the habits of American children of whom he writes in 1870: 

You meet them far into the evening, roaming over the 
piazzas and corridors of the hotels — the little girls espe- 
cially — lean, pale, formidable. Occasionally childhood 
confesses itself, even when maternity resists, and you see 
at eleven o’clock at night some poor little bedizened pre- 
cocity collapsed in slumber in a lonely wayside chair. 

And again in 1906: 

. . . there were ladies and children all about — though 
indeed there may have been sometimes hut the lone 
breakfasting child to deal with; the little pale, carnivo- 
rous, coffee-drinking ogre or ogress, who prowls down in 
advance of its elders, engages a table — dread vision! and 
has the “run” of the bill of fare. 

All who knew James personally have spoken of the terror 
he could inspire when enraged, and one of the minor delights 
of The American Scene is that the stranger occasionally gets 
a glimpse, at a fortunately safe distance, of what these out- 
bursts must have been like — the unhurried implacable ad- 
vance of the huge offensive periods, the overwhelming allitera- 
tive barrage, the annihilating adverbial scorn. 

The freedoms of the young three — ^who were, by-the- 
way, not in their earliest bloom either — ^were thus 
bandied about in the void of the gorgeous valley without 
even a consciousness of its shrill, its recording echoes . . . 
The immodesty was too colossal to be anything but inno- 


312 ] 

cence, but the innocence on the other hand, was too 
colossal to be anything but inane. And they were alive, 
the slighdy stale three: they talked, they laughed, they 
sang, they shrieked, they romped, they scaled the pin- 
nacle of publicity and perched on it, flapping their 
wings; whereby they were shown in possession of many 
of the movements of life. 

Whom were they constructed, such specimens, to talk 
with or to talk over, or to talk under, and what form of 
address or of intercourse, what uttered, what intelligible 
terms of introduction, of persuasion, of menace, what de- 
veloped, what specific human process of any sort, was it 
possible to impute to them? What reciprocities did they 
imply, what presumptions did they, could they, create? 
What happened, inconceivably, when such Greeks met 
such Greeks, such faces looked into such faces, and 
such sounds, in especial, were exchanged with such 
sounds? What women did they live with, what women, 
living with them, could yet leave them as they were? 
What wives, daughters, sisters, did they in fine make 
credible; and what, in especial, was the speech, what the 
manners, what the general dietary, what most the mon- 
strous morning meal, of ladies receiving at such hands 
the law or the license of life? 

Just what, one asks with nostalgic awe, would James have 
said if confronted with the spectacle of a drum-majorette? 

In writing The American Scene, the “facts” he selected to 
go on are, even for James, amazingly and, one would have 
thought, fatally few. Though he seems to have visited 
Chicago (and not to have “liked” it) he confines his chapters 
to the East Coast from Boston to Miami. The Far West, the 
Midwest, the Deep South are totally ignored. This is a pity 
because the regional diflferences of the United States are 
significant, though not, I think, so decisively significant as the 
professional regionalists insist. Today it would be quite fatal 
to neglect the states remoter from Europe, not so much as re- 
gions in themselves, but because some of the most essential 

The American Scene 

[ 313 

and generally typical American facts, such as the film and 
automobile industries, the public power projects, the divorce 
mills, are regionally situated. Still, even in 1906, there were 
many things west of Massachusetts, the landscape of Arizon^t, 
the distinctive atmosphere of San Francisco, to mention only 
two of them, which would have “amused” “the restless analyst,” 
and in whose amusement his readers would have been very 
glad to share.^ 

With the second limitation that James imposed upon him- 
self, however — his decision to reject all second-hand infor- 
mation and sentiment, to stick to those facts, however few, 
which were felt by him, however mistakenly, to be important, 
to be unashamedly, defiantly subjective — one can only whole- 
heartedly agree. In grasping the character of a society, as in 
judging the character of an individual, no documents, statis- 
tics, “objective” measurements can ever compete with the 
single intuitive glance. Intuition may err, for though its sound 
judgment is, as Pascal said, only a question of good eyesight, 
it must be good, for the principles are subtle and numerous, 
and the omission of one principle leads to error; but docu- 
mentation which is useless unless it is complete, must err in a 
field where completeness is impossible. James’ eyesight was 
good, his mind was accurate, and he understood exacdy what 
he was doing; he never confused his observation with his in- 

The fond observer is by his very nature committed 
everywhere to his impression — ^which means essentially, 

I think, that he is foredoomed, in one place as in an- 
other, to “put in” a certain quantity of emotion and 
reflection. The turn his sensibility takes depends of course 
on what is before him; but when is it not in some manner 
exposed and alert? If it be anything really of a touch- 
stone, it is more disposed, I hold, to easy bargains than 
to hard ones; it only wants to be somehow interested, 
and is not without the knowledge that an emotion is 
after all, at the best or the worst, out an emotion. All of 

^ James originally intended, it appears, to write a second volume dealing; 
with the West and Middle West. 


3»4 ] 

which is a voluminous commentary, I admit, on the 
modest text that I perhaps made the University Hos- 
pital stand for too many things. That establishes at all 
events my contention — drat the living fact, in the United 
States, will stand, other facts not preventing, for almost 
anything you may ask of it. 

Where, in the United States, the interest, where the 
pleasure of contemplation is concerned, discretion is the 
better part of valor and insistence too often a betrayal. It 
is not so much that the hostile fact crops up as that the 
friendly fact breaks down. If you have luckily seen, you 
have seen; carry off your prize, in this case, instantly 
and at any risk. Try it again and you don’t, you won’t, 

Yet, if the vision had, necessarily, to be brief, it was neither 
poor nor vague, and only the most leisurely and luxuriant 
treatment could do justice to its rich possibilities. In the novels 
and short stories of the previous decade, James had been 
evolving a style of metaphorical description of the emotions 
which is all his own, a kind of modern Gongorism, and in 
The American Scene this imagery, no longer inhibited by the 
restraining hand of character or the impatient tug of plot, came 
to its fullest and finest bloom. 

Indeed, perhaps the best way to approach this book is as 
a prose poem of the first order, i.e., to suspend, for the time 
being, one’s own conclusions about America and Americans, 
and to read on slowly, relishing it sentence by sentence, for 
it is no more a guidebook than the “Ode to a Nightingale’’ is 
an ornithological essay. It is not even necessary to start at the 
beginning or read with continuity; one can open it at almost 
any page. I advise, for instance, the reader who finds James’ 
later manner a little hard to get into, to begin by reading the 
long paragraph about Lee’s statue which concludes the chap- 
ter on Richmond: this is, admittedly, a purple patch, but 
there are many others which match it. 

James’ firsthand experiences were, necessarily, mostly those 
of a tourist, namely scenic objects, landscapes, buildings, the 

The American Scene [315 

faces and behavior of strangers, and his own ,reflecti(ms on 
what these objects stood for. Unlike his modem rival at con- 
veying the sense of Place — D. H. Lawrence — ^James was no 
naturalist; one is not convinced that he knew one bird dr 
flower from another. He sees Nature as a city-bred gendeman 
with a knowledge of the arts, and by accepting this fully, 
turns it to his advantage in his descriptive conceits. 

. . . the social scene, shabby and sordid, and lost in the 
scale of space as the quotable line is lost in a dull epic or 
the needed name in an ageing memory. 

The spread of this single great wash of Winter from 
latitude to latitude struck me in fact as having its analogy 
in the vast vogue of some infinitely selling novel, one of 
those happy volumes of which the circulation roars, 
periodically, from Adantic to Pacific and from great 
windy state to state, in the manner as I have heard it 
vividly put, of a blazing prairie fire; with as litde possi- 
bility of arrest from “criticism” in the one case as from 
the bleating of lost sheep in the other. 

... the hidden ponds where the season itself seemed to 
blend as a young bedizened, a slighdy melodramatic 
mother, before taking some guilty flight, hangs over the 
crib of her sleeping child. 

But it is in his treatment of social objects and mental con- 
cepts that James reveals most clearly his great and highly 
original poetic gift. Outside of fairy tales, I know of no book 
in which things so often and so naturally become persons. 
Buildings address James: 

Un hon mouvement, therefore: you must make a 
dash for it, but you’ll see I’m worth it. 

James addresses buildings: 

You overdo it for what you are; you overdo it still 
more for what you may be; and don’t pretend above all, 
with the object lesson supplied you, close at hand, by 


3*6 ] 

the queer case of Newport, don’t pretend, we say, not 
to know what we mean. 

Buildings address each other; 

Exquisite was what they called you, eh? We’ll teach 
you, then, little sneak, to be exquisite! We’ll allow none 
of that rot around here. 

At Farmington, the bullying railroad orders taste and tra- 

— off their decent avenue without a fear that they will 
“stand up’’ to it. 

From Philadelphia the alluring train: 

disvulgarized of passengers, steams away, in disinter- 
ested empty form, to some terminus too noble to be 
marked in our poor schedules. 

Again, since The Faerie Queene, what book has been more 
hospitable to allegorical figures? 

At Mount Vernon: 

the slight, pale, bleeding Past, in a patched homespun 
suit, stands there taking the thanks of the Bloated Pres- 
ent, having woundedly rescued from thieves and brought 
to his door the fat, locked pocket book of which that 
personage appears to be the owner. 

At Baltimore the Muse of History descends in a quick white 
flash to declare that she has found that city “a charming 

In Richmond the Spirit of the South reveals herself for a 
vivid moment, 

a figure somehow blighted and stricken discomfortably, 
impossibly seated in an invalid chair, and yet facing one 
with strange eyes that were half a defiance and half a 
deprecation of one’s noticing, and much more of one’s 
referring to, an abnormal sign. 

In Florida the American Woman is waiting to state her 
case in the manner of a politician in Thucydides; 

The American Scene 

[ 3*7 

How can I do all the grace, all the interest, as I’ni ex- 
pected to? Yes, literally aU the interest that isn't the mete 
interest in the money . . . All I want — ^that is all I need, 
for there is perhaps a difference — ^is, to put it simply, 
that my parents and my brothers and my male cousins 
should consent to exist otherwise than occultly, undis- 
coverably, or, as I suppose you'd call it, irresponsibly. 

When the “recent immigrant,” to copy the Jamesian nomen- 
clature, compares his own impressions with those of the “rest- 
less analyst,” he is immediately struck by how little, on the 
one hand, America has changed in any decisive way — ^the 
changes, great as they are, seem but extensions and modifica- 
tions of a pattern already observable thirty years ago — and, 
on the other, by the irrevocable and catastrophic alterations in 

The features of the American scene which most struck the 
analyst then are those which most strike the immigrant now, 
whether they be minor details, like the magnificent boots and 
teeth, the heavy consumption of candy, “the vagueness of 
separation between apartments, between hall and room, be- 
tween one room and another, between the one you are in and 
the one you are not in,” or major matters like the promiscuous 
gregariousness, the lack, even among the rich, of constituted 
privacy, the absence of forms for vice no less than for virtue, 
the “spoiling” of women and their responsibility for the whole 
of culture, aTOve all the elimination from the scene of the squire 
and the parson.^ It takes the immigrant a litde time to discover 
just why the United States seems so different from any of the 
countries he resentfully or nostalgically remembers, but the cru- 
cial difference is, I think, just this last elimination of “the 
per\'asive Patron” and “the old ecclesiastical arrogance for 

*Thc immigrant would like to add one element, the excesses of the 
climate, which is either much too hot or miich too cold or much too wet or 
much too dry or even, in the case of the California coast, much too mild, a 
sort of meteorological Back Bay. And then— oh dear!— the insects, and the 
snakes, and the foisan ivv . . . The truth is, Nature never intended human 
beings to live here, and her hostility, which confined the Indian to a 
nomad life and forbids the white man to relax his vi^Iance and will for 
one instant, must be an important factor in determining the American 


31S ] 

which, oh! a thousand times, the small substitutes, the mere 
multiplication of the signs of theological enterprise, in the tra- 
dition and on the scale of commercial and industrial enterprise, 
have no attenuation worth mentioning.” 

What in fact is missing, what has been consciously rejected, 
with all that such a rejection implies, is the romanitas upon 
which Europe was founded and which she has not ceased at- 
tempting to preserve. This is a point which, at the risk of 
becoming tedious, must be enlarged upon, since the issue be- 
tween America and Europe is no longer a choice between social 
leveling and social distinctions. The leveling is a universal and 
inexorable fact. Nothing can prevent the liquidation of the 
European nations or any other nation in the great continents, 
Asia, Africa, America, the liquidation of the "individual” (in 
the eighteenth-century liberal meaning of the word) in the 
collective proletariat, the liquidation of Christendom in the 
neutral world. From that there is no refuge anywhere. But 
one’s final judgment of Europe and America depends, it seems 
to me, upon whether one thinks that America (or America as 
a symboO is right to reject romanitas or that Europe is right in 
trying to find new forms of it suited to the "democratized” so- 
cieties of our age. 

The fundamental presupposition of romanitas, secular or sa- 
cred, is that virtue is prior to liberty, i.e., what matters most is 
that people should think and act rightly; of course it is prefer- 
able that they should do so consciously of their own free will, 
but if they cannot or will not, they must be made to, the 
majority by the spiritual pressure of education and tradition, 
the minority by physical coercion, for liberty to act wrongly is 
not liberty but license. The antagonistic presupposition, which 
is not peculiar to America and would probably not be accepted 
by many Americans, but for which this country has come, 
symbolically, to stand, is that liberty is prior to virtue, i.e., 
liberty cannot be distinguished from license, for freedom of 
choice is neither good nor bad but the human prerequisite 
without which virtue and vice have no meaning. Virtue is, 
of course, preferable to vice, but to choose vice is preferable to 
having virtue chosen for one. 

The American Scene 

[ 3*9 

To those who make the first presupposition, both St^ and 
Church have the same positive moral function; to those who 
make the second, their functions differ: the function of the 
State becomes a negative one — to prevent the will of the strong 
from interfering with the will of the weak, or the wills of the 
weak with one another, even if the strong should be in the 
right and the weak in the wrong — ^and the Church, whether 
Catholic or Protestant, divorced from the State, becomes a wit- 
ness, an offered opportunity, a community of converts. The 
real issue has been obscured, for both sides, by the historical 
struggle for social equality which made liberty seem the virtue 
— or license the vice — of which equality was the prized or 
detested precondition. This was natural since, when the strug- 
gle began, the most glaring cause of lack of liberty was the 
privileged position of the few and the unprivileged position of 
the many, so that a blow struck for equality was, in most cases, 
at the same time a blow struck for liberty, hut the assumed 
order of priority was false all the same, llie possibility that 
de Tocqueville foresaw from an inspection of America in 1830, 
has .become a dreadful reality in the Europe of 1946, namely, 
that romanitas is perfectly capable of adapting itself to an 
egalitarian and untraditional society; it can even drop absolute 
values and replace the priest by the social engineer without 
violating its essential nature (which is and always was not 
Christian but Manichean). And it was from America, the first 
egalitarian society, that it learned how to adapt itself. For in- 
stance, it took the technique of mass advertising, eliminated 
the competitive element and changed the sales object from 
breakfast foods to political passions; it took the egalitarian sub- 
stitute for tradition — fashion — ^and translated it from the put- 
ting over of best sellers and evening frocks to the selling of an 
ever-switching party line; it took the extra-legal vigilantes and 
put them into official uniforms; it took the inert evil of race 
prejudice and made it a dynamic evil. An America which 
does not realize the difference between equality and liberty 
is in danger, for, start with equality in order to arrive at liberty 
and the moment you come to a situation where inequality 
is or seems to you, rightly or wrongly, a stubborn fact, you 


3^0 ] 

will come to ^rief. For instance, the unequal distribution of 
intellectual gifts is a fact; since they refuse to face it, the 
institutions of Higher Learning in America cannot decide 
whether they are to be Liberal Arts Colleges for the excep- 
tional few or vocational schools for the average many, and 
so fail to do their duty by either. On the other, more sinister, 
hand, the Southerner, rightly or wrongly, believes that the 
Negro is his inferior; by putting equality before liberty, he 
then refuses him the most elementary human liberties, for 
example, the educational and economic liberties that are the 
only means by which the Negro could possibly become the 
equal of the white, so that the latter can never be proven 

Democratic snobbery or race prejudice is uglier than the 
old aristocratic snobbery because the included are relatively 
so many and the excluded relatively so few. The exclusive- 
ness, for instance, of Baron de Charlus is forgivable and even 
charming. If Charlus will speak to only half a dozen people, 
it cannot be supposed that the millions suffer severely from 
being unable to speak to Charlus; his behavior is frankly irra- 
tionm, a personal act from which, if anyone suffers, it is only 
himself. The exclusiveness of the American Country Club 
— I cannot share James’ pleasure in that institution — is both 
inexcusable and vulgar, for, since it purports to be democratic, 
its exclusion of Jews is a contradiction for which it has to 
invent dishonest rationalizations. 

As the issue between virtue first and liberty first becomes 
clearer, so does the realization that the cost to any society that 
accepts the latter is extremelv high, and to some may seem 
prohibitive. One can no longer make the task look easier than 
it is by pretending, as the liberals of the Enlightenment be- 
lieved, that men are naturally good. No, it is just as true as 
it ever was that man is born in sin, that the majority are al- 
ways, relativelv, in the wrong, the minority sometimes, rela- 
tively, in the right (every one, of course, is free at any time 
to belong to either), and all, before God, absolutely in the 
wrong, that all of the people some of the time and some of 
the people most of the time will abuse their liberty and treat 

The American Scene 


it as the license of an escaped slave. But if the priciciple is 
accepted, it means accepting this: it means accepting a State 
that, in comparison to its Roman rival, is dangerously weak 
(though realizing that, since people will never cease trying 
to interfere with the liberties of others in pursuing their own, 
the State can never wither away. Tyranny today, anarchy 
tomorrow is a Neo-Roman daydream); it means accepting 
a “Society,” in the collective inclusive sense, that is as neutral 
to values (liberty is not a value but the ground of value) as 
the “nature” of physics; it means accepting an educational 
system in which, in spite of the fact that authority is essential 
to the growth of the individual who is lost without it, the re- 
sponsibility for recognizing authority is laid on the pupil; it 
means accepting the impossibility of any “official” or "public” 
art; and, for the individual, it means accepting the lot of the 
Wandering Jew, i.e., the loneliness and anxiety of having to 
choose himself, his faith, his vocation, his tastes. The Margin 
is a hard taskmaster; it says to the individual: “It’s no good 
your running to me and asking me to make you into someone. 
You must choose. I won’t try to prevent your choice, but I 
can’t and won’t help you make it. If you try to put your trust 
in me, in public opinion, you will become, not someone but 
no one, a neuter atom of the public.” 

If one compares Americans with Europeans, one might say, 
crudely and too tidily, that the mediocre American is pos- 
sessed by the Present and the mediocre European is possessed 
by the Past. The task of overcoming mediocrity, that is, of 
learning to possess instead of being possessed, is thus different 
in each case, for the American has to make the Present his 
present, and the European the Past his past. There are two 
ways of taking possession of the Present: one is with the help 
of the Comic or Ironic spirit. Hence the superiority of Ameri- 
can (and Yiddish) humor. 'The other way is to choose a 
Past, i.e., to go physically or in the spirit to Europe. James’ 
own explanation of his migration — 

To make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t 
‘mind,’ don’t mind anything — that is absolutely, I think, 


322 ] 

the main American formula. Thus your making no 
money— or so little that it passes there for none — and 
being thereby distinctly reduced to minding, amounts to 
your being reduced to the knowledge that America is no 
place for you. . . . The withdrawal of the considerable 
group of the pecuniarily disqualified seems, for the 
present, an assured movement; there will always be scat- 
tered individuals condemned to mind on a scale beyond 
any scale of making — 

seems to me only partly true; better T. S. Eliot’s observation 
in his essay on James: 

It is the final consummation of an American to become, 
not an Englishman, but a European — something no born 
Englishman, no person of European nationality can be- 

James wrote a short story, “The Great Good Place,” which has 
been praised by Mr. Fadiman and condemned by Mr. Mat- 
thiessen, in both instances, I think, for the wrong reason, for 
both take it literally. The former says: "The Place is what our 
civilization could be. ... It is a hotel without noise, a club 
without newspapers. You even have to pay for service.” If 
this were true, then the latter would be quite right to com- 
plain, as he does, that it is the vulgar daydream of a rich 
bourgeois intellectual. I believe, however, that, in his own 
discreet way, James is writing a religious parable, that is, he 
is not describing some social Utopia, but a spiritual state which 
is achievable by the individual now, that the club is a symbol 
of this state — not its cause, and the momey a symbol of the 
sacrifice and suffering demanded to attain and preserve it. 
Anyway, the story contains a passage of dialogue which seems 
relevant to The American Scene. 

‘Every man must arrive by himself and on his own 
feet — isn’t that so? We’re Brothers here for the time as 
in a great monastery, and we immediately think of each 
other and recognize each other as such: but we must 
have first got here as we can, and we meet after long 
journeys by complicated ways.’ 

The American Scene 

I 3^3 

‘Where is it?' 

‘I shouldn’t be surprised if it were much nearer than 
one ever suspected.’ 

‘Nearer “town,” do you mean?' 

‘Nearer everything — nearer everyone.’ 

Yes. Nearer everything. Nearer than James himself, perhaps, 
suspected, to the “hereditary thinness” of the American Mar- 
gin, to “the packed and hoisted basket” and “the torture 
rooms of the living idiom,” nearer to the unspeakable juke- 
boxes, the horrible Rockettes and the insane salads, nearer 
to the anonymous countryside littered with heterogeneous 
dreck and the synonymous cities besotted with electric signs, 
nearer to radio commercials and congressional oratory and 
Hollywood Christianity, nearer to all the “democratic” lusts 
and licenses, without which, perhaps, the analyst and the 
immigrant alike would never understand by contrast the 
nature of the Good Place nor desire it with sufficient despera- 
tion to stand a chance of arriving. 


Of course, neither the Roman nor the Liberal presupposition 
is wholly true, for both represent an abstraction from his- 
torical reality. 

If we consider human relations purely objectively, in abstrac- 
tion from the human beings who enter into them, then the 
moral problem is of right or wrong action and the problem 
of choice is irrelevant; if we consider human beings purely 
subjectively, in abstraction from their relations to each other, 
the moral problem is one of liberty or slavery. 

In everyday life we instinctively adopt the Roman position 
in relation to strangers and the Liberal position in relation to 
our friends. If a stranger forges my name to a check, I do not 
ask if he had an unhappy childhood, I call the police; if a 
friend does the same thing, I ask myself what can be the 
matter with him and the matter with me, that he should so 
violate our friendship. 

The Roman can show that, at any given time, there is always 
a class, e.g., children below a certain age, and some individ- 

Postscrift: Pome v. Montkello [ 325 

uals, e.g., criminals and lunatics whose inalnlity oc refusal 
to rule themselves makes them a menace to others and whose 
freedom therefore must be to some degree restrained. The 
Liberal, on the other hand, can show that a hard and fast 
division between those who cannot rule themselves and those 
who can is false. The newborn baby has traces of the capacity 
to rule itself and the wisest and best man cannot rule himself 
perfectly. Further, in the wisest ruler there remain traces of 
selfish passion in his relation to those whom he rules. In 
so far as he enjoys ruling others — and there always is an 
element of pleasure in so doing — he must desire that there 
remain people who cannot rule themselves, that his attempt 
to educate them to freedom will fail. 

Toilet training, for example, would seem at first sight a case 
in which the Roman position was unassailable; no baby is 
bom in control of his reflexes and no sane adult regards the 
conditioned control of his reflexes as a mistake or consciously 
rebels. Yet psychologists have been able to demonstrate that 
even here, the end of right action cannot be separated from 
the means of inculcation, that a taste for power, impatience, 
or even mere ignorance of the right means, can violate the 
traces of free will already present in the baby with deleterious 
effects in later life. 

The Roman must concede this but then correct the tendency 
of the Liberal to abandon all conditioning educational tech- 
niques in favor of a mixture of rationm explanation and 
learning by trial and error. For example, no free exercise 
of the human mind is possible until man has learned to exclude 
the irrelevant distractions of his immediate environment and 
concentrate on the problem he is attacking, or until he has 
learned to be truthful, to subordinate his desires to what is 
the case; it is only when concentration and tmthfulness have 
become second nature to him that he will listen to reason or 
recognize an error as an error. 

In its justifiable reaction against the mechanical learning 
by rote of, say, mathematical operations, progressive educa- 
tion is tending to carry its distaste for conditioning and au- 


326 ] 

thority into a sphere where it is fundamental, and threatening 
to produce a generation which may not think mechanically hut 
only because it cannot think at all; it has never learned how. 

The class distinctions proper to a democratic society are not 
those of rank or money, still less, as is apt to happen when 
these are abandoned, of race, but of age. In a democracy it 
is more, not less, important than in hierarchical and static 
societies that a distance should be kept between the young and 
the adult, the adult and the old: it is, I fear, Utopian to hope 
for them, but what the United States needs are puberty 
initiation rites and a council of elders. 


*'MovHng hay hy hand! Bless their hearts!" 
An American matron in the train 

between Bologna and Florence 

Reading Miss Yezierska’s book^ sets me thinking again about 
that famous and curious statement in the Preamble to the 
Constitution about the self-evident right of all men to "the 
pursuit of happiness,” for I have read few accounts of such 
a pursuit so truthful and moving as hers. 

To be happy means to be free, not from pain or fear, but 
from care or anxiety. A man is so free when i) he knows 
what he desires and 2) what he desires is real and not 
fantastic. A desire is real when the possibility of satisfaction 
exists for the individual who entertains it and the existence of 
such a possibility depends, first, on his present historical and 

^ Anzia Yczierska, Red Rihhon on a White Horse, Scribner*s. 1950. 


3^8 ] 

social sitiiation — a desire for a Cadillac which may be real 
for a prosperous American businessman would be fantastic for 
a Chinese peasant — and, secondly, on his natural endowment 
as an individual — for a girl with one eye to desire to be kept 
by a millionaire would be fantastic, for a girl with two 
beautiful ones it may not. To say that the satisfaction of a 
desire is possible does not mean that it is certain but that, if 
the desire is not satisfied, a definite and meaningful reason 
can be given. Thus, if the American businessman fails to get 
the Cadillac he desires and asks himself, “Why?” he can 
give a sensible answer like, “My wife had to have an emer- 
gency operation which took my savings”; but if the Chinese 
peasant asks, “Why cannot I buy a Cadillac?” there are an 
infinite number of reasons which can only be summed up in 
the quite irrational answer, “Because I am I.” The business- 
man suflFers disappointment or pain but does not become un- 
happy; the peasant, unless he dismisses his desire as fantastic, 
becomes unhappy because to question his lack of satisfaction 
is to question the value of his existence. 

So long as it is a matter of immediate material goods, few 
sane individuals cherish fantastic desires after tbe age of 
puberty, but there are desires for spiritual goods which are 
much more treacherous, e.g., the desire to find a vocation in 
life, to have a dedicated history. “What do I want to be? A 
wnriter? A chemist? A priest?” Since I am concerned not with 
any immediate objective good but with pledging the whole of 
my unknown future in advance, the chances of self-deception 
are much greater because it will be years before I can be 
certain whether my choice is real or fantastic. Nor can any 
outsider make the decision for me; he can only put questions 
to me which make me more aware of what my decision 

Miss Yezierska’s book is an account of her efforts to discard 
fantastic desires and find real ones, both material and spiritual. 

She began life in a Polish ghetto, i.e., in the bottom layer 
of the stratified European heap. In the more advanced coun- 
tries of Europe, like England, it had become possible for a 
talented individual to rise a class, a generation, but in Russia, 
above all for a Jew, it was still quite impossible; if once one 

Red Ribbon on a White Horse 

[ 3^9 

had been bom in the ghetto, then in the ghetto one would die. 
For its inhabitants extreme poverty and constant fear of a 
pogrom were normal, and even so humble a desire as the wish 
to eat white bread was fantastic. So it had been for centuries 
until, suddenly, a possibility of escape was opened — immigra- 
tion to America. What America would provide positively in 
place of the ghetto remained to be seen, but at least it would 
be different and any sufferings she might inflict would, at the 
very least, not be worse. 

So Miss Yezierska and her family came and found them- 
selves on the Lower East Side. Here was poverty still but less 
absolute, exploitation but the possibility of one day becoming 
an exploiter, racial discrimination but no pogroms. Was their 
new condition an improvement on their former oner* It was 
hard to be certain. Where poverty is accepted as normal and 
permanent, the poor develop a certain style of living which 
extracts the maximum comfort from the minimum materials, 
but where poverty is held to be temporary or accidental, the 
preoccupation with escape leaves no time for such amenities; 
every European visitor to the States, I think, receives the im- 
pression that nowhere else in the world is real poverty — ad- 
mittedly, rarer here than anywhere else — so cheerless, sordid 
and destitute of all grace. 

Moreover, in the “bad old days” of which Miss Yezierska 
writes — a more lively social conscience and a slackening of the 
immigrant stream have largely put a stop to it — in no Euro- 
pean country, it seems, were the very poor treated with such 
contempt. In Europe the rich man and the poor man were 
thought of as being two different kinds of men; the poor man 
might be an inferior kind but he was a man: but here the poor 
man was not, as such, a man, but a person in a state of poverty 
from which, if he were a real man, he would presently extri- 
cate himself. The newly arriving poor, to judge from Miss 
Yezierska’s description of the sweatshop, were treated by their 
predecessors, it seems, like freshmen by upperclassmen, i.e., 
subjected to a process of “hazing” so as to toughen their char- 
acter and stiffen their determination to rise to a position of 

For the older generation particularly, who, in any case, had 


330 ] 

usually immigrated for the sake of their children, not of them- 
selves, the new life often seemed only a little better materially, 
and spiritually very much worse. The fellowship of suffering 
lasts only so long as none of the sufferers can escape. Open a 
door through which many but probably not all can escape one 
at a time and the neighborly community may disintegrate, all 
too easily, into a stampeding crowd. Those who had learned 
how to he happy even in prison and could neither understand 
nor desire another life stood abandoned, watching the stam- 
pede with bewilderment and horror. 

Some, like Boruch Shlomoi Mayer, simply wanted to go 

To me, America is a worse Goluth than Poland. The 
ukases and pogroms from the Czar, all the killings that 
could not kill us gave us the strength to live with God. 
Learning was learning — dearer than gold. . . . But here 
in New York, the synagogues are in the hands of godless 
lumps of flesh. A butcher, a grocer, any moneymaker 
could buy himself into a president of a synagogue. With 
all that was bad under the Czar, the synagogue was still 
God’s light in time of darkness. Better to die there than 
to live here. . . . 

Others continued to live their old life with uncompromising 
indifference to the new world. Miss Yezierska’s father, for in- 
stance, had a vocation, the study of the Torah, which involved 
his being supported by his wife and children. He had expected 
them to do so in Plinsk, he expected them to continue doing 
so in New York. But what they had accepted in Poland as an 
extra burden, worth bearing for the honor in which a learned 
and holy man was held by the community, was bound to seem 
intolerable in America, where not only was a noneamer re- 
garded as an idler but also the possibility for the family of 
acquiring status existed in proportion to their earning capacity. 

His daughter, however, as she later realized, was more like 
him than either of them at the time could perceive. Had she 
been less like him, had she simply desired money and a good 
marriage, there would have been less friction between them 

Red Ribbon on a White Horse 

[ 331 

but she, too, was seeking for a dedicated life of her owiv which 
in his eyes was impious, for all vocations but one were for men 

‘a woman alone, not a wife and not a mother, has no 
existence.” She, however, wanted a vocation all to herself and 
thought she had found it in writing. She began, as she tells 
us, with the hope that “by writing out what I don’t know and 
can’t understand, it would stop hurting me.” At the same 
time, of course, she wanted money to satisfy her needs. This 
is any artist’s eternal problem, that he needs money as a man 
but works for love. Even in the case of the most popular writer, 
money is not the purpose for which he writes, though popu- 
larity may be. 

So she begins; she writes a book, Hungry Hearts, about the 
life of a poor immigrant, which is well reviewed but does not 
sell; then, suddenly, the American Fairy — ^whether she is a 
good or wicked fairy, who knows? — ^waves her hand and she 
is transported in an instant from Hester Street to Hollywood; 
from one day to the next, that is, suffering is abolished for her. 
How does she feel? More unhappy than she has ever been in 
her life. To have the desires of the poor and be transferred in 
a twinkling of an eye to a world which can only be real for 
those who have the desires of the rich is to be plunged into 
the severest anxiety. The foreshortening of time which is 
proper to a dream or a fairy story is a nightmare in actual life. 

Further, to be called to Hollywood is not like winning a 
fortune in the Calcutta sweepstakes; money is showered upon 
one because it is believed that one is a valuable piece of prop- 
erty out of which much larger sums can be made. For a writer 
this is only bearable if he knows exactly what he wants to 
write and if what he can write happens to pay off the investors 
as they expect. Miss Yezierska was too young to be the former 
and, by snatching her away from Hester Street and the only 
experiences about which she knew, the film magnates effec- 
tively destroyed the possibility that their expensive goose might 
lay another golden egg. In fact, they gave it such a fright that 
it stopped laying altogether. 

The sudden paralysis or drying up of the creative power 


332 ] 

occurs to artists everywhere but nowhere, perhaps, more fre- 
quently than in America; nowhere else are there so many 
writers who produced one or two books in their youth and 
then nothing. I think one reason for this may be the domi- 
nance of the competitive spirit in the American ethos. A mate- 
rial good like a washing machine is not a unique good but one 
example of a kind of good; accordingly one washing machine 
can be compared with another and judged better or worse. 
The best, indeed the only, way to stimulate the production of 
better washing machines is by competition. But a work of art 
is not a good of a certain kind but a unique good so that, stricdy 
speaking, no work of art is comparable to another. An inferior 
washing machine is preferable to no washing machine at all, 
but a work of art is either acceptable, whatever its faults, to 
the individual who encounters it or unacceptable, whatever its 
merits. The writer who allows himself to become infected by 
the competitive spirit proper to the production of material 
goods so that, instead of trying to write his book, he tries to 
write one which is better than somebody else’s book is in 
danger of trying to write the absolute masterpiece which will 
eliminate all competition once and for all and, since this 
task is totally unreal, his creative powers cannot relate to it, 
and the result is sterility. 

In other and more static societies than in the United States 
an individual derives much of his sense of identity and value 
from his life-membership in a class — the particular class is not 
important — from which neither success nor failure, unless 
very spectacular, can oust him, but, in a society where any 
status is temporary and any variation in the individual’s 
achievement alters it, his sense of his personal value must 
depend — unless he is a religious man — largely upon what he 
achieves: the more successful he is, the nearer he comes to the 
ideal good of absolute certainty as to his value; the less success- 
ful he is, the nearer he comes to the abyss of nonentity. 

With the coming of the depression Miss Yezierska ceased 
to be a solitary failure and became one of millions who could 
not be called failures, because the positions in which they 
could succeed or fail no longer existed. It was surely the height 

Red Ribbon on a White Horse 

[ 333 

of irony that, in a country where the proof of one’s importance 
had been that one was rich and popular, people should sud- 
denly, in order to prove that they were important enough to 
eat, have to go to elaborate lengths to establish that they were 
penniless and friendless. 

The Arts Project of the W.P.A. was, perhaps, one of the 
noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any 
state. Noble because no other state has ever cared whether its 
artists as a group lived or died; other governments have hired 
certain individual artists to glorify their operations and have 
even granted a small pension from time to time to some artist 
with fame or influence, but to consider, in a time of general 
distress, starving artists as artists and not simply as paupers is 
unique to the Roosevelt administration. Yet absurd, because 
a state can only function bureaucratically and impersonally — 
it has to assume that every member of a class is equivalent or 
comparable to every other member — but every artist, good or 
bad, is a member of a class of one. You can collect fifty unem- 
ployed plumbers, test them to eliminate the unemployable, 
and set the remainder to work on whatever plumbing jobs you 
can find, but if you collect fifty unemployed writers, ex-profes- 
sors, New England spinsters, radicals, Bohemians, etc., there 
is no test of their abilities which applies fairly to them all and 
no literary task you can devise which can be properly done by 
even a minority of them. While only the laziest and most 
inefficient of your plumbers will let you down, because the 
jobs you give them are the jobs for which they have been 
trained and regard as theirs, only the writers with the strictest 
sense of moral, as distinct from professional, duty will fail to 
cheat you if, as must almost inevitably be the case, the literary 
job you offer them is one in which they take no interest, not 
because writers are intrinsically lazier or more dishonest than 
plumbers, but because they can see no sense in what you are 
asking them to do. 

It is easy for the accountant to frown on the W.P.A. for its 
inefficiency and for the artists to sneer at it for its bureaucracy, 
but the fact remains that, thanks to it, a number of young 
artists of talent were enabled, at a very critical time in their 


334 ] 

lives, to get started upon their creative careers. As for the rest, 
the executive might just as well have been honest — and I 
dare say would have been glad to — given them their weekly 
checks and sent them home, but the legislature which could 
endure such honesty could exist only in heaven. 

Among her companions in poverty and comedy. Miss 
Yezierska felt once more to some degree that happiness of 
“belonging” which years before she had felt in Hester Street, 
though only she realized this after it was over. But belonging to 
some degree is not enough; one must belong completely or the 
feeling soon withers. Once again the lack of a common mem- 
ory of the past and a common anticipation of the future was 
a fatal barrier, not only for her but for most of her fellows. 

The word “home” raised a smile in us all three. 

And one repeated it, smiling just so 

That all knew what he meant and none would say. 

Between three counties far apart that lay 
We were divided and looked strangely each 
At the other, and we knew we were not friends 
But fellows in a union that ends 
With the necessity for it, as it ought. 


No, the accidental community of suffering was not the clue 
to happiness and she had to look further. 

Miss Yezierska’s autobiography is, literally, the story of an 
early twentieth-century immigrant, but it has a deeper and 
more general significance today when, figuratively, the immi- 
grant is coming more and more to stand as the symbol for 
Everyman, as the natural and unconscious community of tradi- 
tion rapidly disappears from the earth. 


Political and technological developments are rapidly obliter- 
ating all cultural differences and it is possible that, in a not 
remote future, it will be impossible to distinguish human 
beings living on one area of the earth’s surface from those 
living on any other, but our different pasts have not yet been 
completely erased and cultural differences are still perceptible. 
The most striking difference between an American and a 
European is the difference in their attitudes towards money. 
Every European knows, as a matter of historical fact, that, in 
Europe, wealth could only be acquired at the expense of other 
human beings, either by conquering them or by exploiting 
their labor in factories. Further, even after the Industrie 
Revolution began, the number of persons who could rise from 
poverty to wealth was small; the vast majority took it for 
granted that they would not be much richer nor poorer than 
their fathers. In consequence, no European associates wealth 
with personal merit or poverty with personal failure. 

To a European, money means power, the freedom to do as 
he likes, which also means that, consciously or unconsciously, 
he says: “I want to have as much money as possible myself 
and others to have as little money as possible.” 

In the United States, wealth was also acquired by stealing, 
but the real exploited victim was not a human being but poor 
Mother Earth and her creatures who were ruthlessly plun- 


336 1 

dered. It is trae that the Indians were expropriated or ex- 
terminated, but this was not, as it had always been in Europe, 
a matter of the conqueror seizing the wealth of the con- 
quered, for the Indian had never realized the potential riches 
of his country. It is also true that, in the Southern states, men 
lived on the labor of slaves, but slave labor did not make them 
fortunes; what made slavery in the South all the more in- 
excusable was that, in addition to being morally wicked, it 
didn’t even pay off handsomely. 

Thanks to the natural resources of the country, every 
American, until quite recently, could reasonably look forward 
to making more money than his father, so that, if he made 
less, the fault must be his; he was either lazy or inefficient. 
What an American values, therefore, is not the possession 
of money as such, but his power to make it as a proof of 
his manhood; once he has proved himself by making it, it 
has served its function and can be lost or given away. In no 
society in history have rich men given away so large a part 
of their fortunes. A poor American feels guilty at being poor, 
but less guilty than an American rentier who has inherited 
wealth but is doing nothing to increase it; what can the latter 
do but take to drink and psychoanalysis? 

In the Fifth Circle on the Mount of Purgatory, I do not think 
that many Americans will be found among the Avaricious; but 
I suspect that the Prodigals may be almost an American colony. 
The great vice of Americans is not materialism but a lack of 
respect for matter. 


But Islands of the Blessed, hless you son, 
I never came u-pon a blessed one. 

If asked who said Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty!, a great 
many readers would answer “Keats.” But Keats said nothing of 
the sort. It is what he said the Grecian Urn said, his de- 
scription and criticism of a certain kind of work of art, the 
kind from which the evils and problems of this life, the 
“heart high sorrowful and cloyed,” are deliberately excluded. 
The Urn, for example, depicts, among other beautiful sights, 
the citadel of a hill town; it does not depict warfare, the evil 
which makes the citadel necessary. 

Art arises out of our desire for both beauty and truth and 
our knowledge that they are not identical. One might say 
that every poem shows some sign of a rivalry between Ariel 


338 1 

and Prospero; in every good poem their relation is more or 
less happy, but it is never without its tensions. The Grecian 
Urn states Ariel’s position; Prospero’s has been equally suc- 
cinctly stated by Dr. Johnson: The only end of writing is to 
enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it. 

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal 
earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives 
us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical 
existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable 
suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that 
is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our 
life which will show us what life is really like and free us 
from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot 
bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the 
problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly. Though 
every poem involves some degree of collaboration between 
Ariel and Prospero, the role of each varies in importance 
from one poem to another: it is usually possible to say of a 
poem and, sometimes, of the whole output of a poet, that 
it is Ariel-dominated or Prospero-dominated. 

Hot sun, cool fire, tempered with sweet air. 

Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white hair: 

Shine, sun; bum, fire; breathe, air, and ease me; 

Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me: 
Shadow, my sweet nurse, keep me from burning. 

Make not my glad cause, cause for mourning. 

Let not my beauty’s fire 
Inflame unstaid desire. 

Nor pierce any bright eye 
That wandereth lightly. 

(george peele, "Bathsabe’s Song.”) 

The road at the top of the rise 
Seems to come to an end 
And take off into the skies. 

So at a distant bend 

Robert Frost 

[ 339 

It seems to go into a wood, 

The place of standing still 
As long as the trees have stood. 

But say what Fancy will, 

The mineral drops that explode 
To drive my ton of car 
Are limited to the road. 

They deal with the near and far. 

And have almost nothing to do 
With the absolute flight and rest 
The universal blue 
And local green suggest. 


“The Middleness of the Road.”) 

Both poems are written in the first person singular, but 
the Peele-Bathsabe I is very different from the Frost I. The 
first seems anonymous, hardly more than a grammatical form; 
one cannot imagine meeting Bathsabe at a dinner party. The 
second I names a historical individual in a specific situation 
— he is driving an automobile in a certain kind of landscape. 

Take away what Bathsabe says and she vanishes, for what 
she says does not seem to be a response to any situation or 
event. If one asks what her song is about, one cannot give a 
specific answer, only a vague one: — a beautiful young girl, 
any beautiful girl, on any sunny morning, half-awake and 
half-asleep, is reflecting on her beauty with a mixture of 
self-admiration and pleasing fear, pleasing because she is 
unaware of any real danger; a girl who was really afraid of a 
Peeping Tom would sing very differently. If one tries to 
explain why one likes the song, or any poem of this kind, one 
finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the 
rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of 
caesuras, epanorthosis, etc. 

Frost’s poem, on the other hand, is clearly a response to 
an experience which preceded any words and without which 


34° ] 

the poem could not have come into being, for the purpose of 
the poem is to define that experience and draw wisdom from 
it. Though the beautiful verbal element is not absent — it is 
a poem, not a passage of informative prose — this is subordinate 

in importance to the truth of what it says. 

If someone suddenly asks me to give him an example of 
good poetry, it is probably a poem of the Peek sort which 
will immeaiately come to my mind: but if I am in a state of 
emotional excitement, be it joy or grief, and try to think of 
a poem which is relevant and illuminating to my condition, 
it is a poem of the Frost sort which I shall be most likely to 


Ariel, as Shakespeare has told us, has no passions. That is 
his glory and his limitation. The earthly paradise is a beautiful 
place but nothing of serious importance can occur in it. 

An anthology selected by Ariel, including only poems like 
the Eclogues of Vergil, Las Soledades of Gongora and poets 
like Campion, Herrick, Mallarm^, would, in the long run, 
repel us by its narrowness and monotony of feeling: for 
Ariel’s other name is Narcissus. 

It can happen that a poem which, when written, was Pros- 
pero-dominated, becomes an Ariel poem for later generations. 
The nursery rhyme I will sing you One O may very well 
originally have been a mnemonic rhyme for teaching sacred 
lore of the highest importance. The sign that, for us, it has 
become an Ariel poem is that we have no curiosity about the 
various persons it refers to: it is as anthropologists not as readers 
of poetry that we ask who the lily-white boys really were. On 
the other hand, anything we can learn about the persons 
whom Dante introduces into The Divine Comedy, contributes 
to our appreciation of his poem. 

It is also possible for a poet himself to be mistaken as to 
the kind of poem he is writing. For example, at first reading, 
Lycidas seems to be by Prospero, for it purports to deal with 
the most serious matters possible — death, grief, sin, resurrec- 
tion. But I believe this to be an illusion. On closer inspection, 
it seems to me that only the robes are Prospero’s and that 
Ariel has dressed up in them for fun, so that it is as irrelevant 
to ask, “Who is the Pilot of the Galilean Lake?” as it is to 

Robert Vrost 

[ 341 

ask, “Who is the Pobble who has no toes?” and He who walks 
the waves is merely an Arcadian shepherd whose name hap- 
pens to be Christ. If Lycidas is read in this way, as if it were 
a poem by Edward Lear, then it seems to me one of the most 
beautiful poems in the English language: if, however, it is 
read as the Prospero poem it apparendy claims to be, then it 
must be condemned, as Dr. Johnson condemned it, for being 
unfeeling and frivolous, since one expects wisdom and revela- 
tion and it provides neither. 

The Ariel-dominated poet has one great advantage; he 
can only fail in one way — his poem may be trivial. The worst 
one can say of one of his poems is that it needn’t have been 
written. But the Prospero-dominated poet can fail in a number 
of different ways. Of all English poets, Wordsworth is perhaps 
the one with the least element of Ariel that is compatible with 
being a poet at all, and so provides the best examples of 
what happens when Prospero tries to write entirely by himself. 

The Bird and Cage they both were his: 

'Twas my Son’s bird: and neat and trim 

He kept it; many voyages 

This singing bird has gone with him : 

When last he sailed he left the bird behind; 

As it might be, perhaps from bodings in his mind. 

Reading such a passage, one exclaims, “The man can’t write,” 
which is something that can never be said about Ariel; when 
Ariel can’t write, he doesn't. But Prospero is capable of graver 
errors than just being ridiculous; since he is trying to say 
something which is true, if he fails, the result can be worse 
than trivial. It can be false, compelling the reader to say, not 
“This poem need not have been written,” but “This poem 
should not have been written.” 

Both in theory and practice Frost is a Prospero-dominated 
poet. In the preface to his Collected Poems, he writes: 

The sound is the gold in the ore. Then we will have 
the sound out alone and dispense with the inessential. 
We do till we make the discovery that the object in 
writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different 


341 1 

as possible from each other, and the resources for that 
of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sen- 
tences, meter are not enough. We need the help of con- 
text — meaning — subject matter. . . . And we are back in 
poetry as merely one more art of having something to 
say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because 
deeper and from wider experience. [A poem] begins in 
delight and ends in wisdom ... a clarification of life — 
not necessarily a great clarification such as sects and cults 
are founded on, but in a momentary stay against con- 

His poetic style is what I think Professor C. S. Lewis would 
call Good Drab. The music is always that of the speaking 
voice, quiet and sensible, and I cannot think of any other 
modern poet, except Cavafy, who uses language more simply. 
He rarely employs metaphors, and there is not a word, not a 
historical or literary reference in the whole of his work which 
would be strange to an unbookish boy of fifteen. Yet he man- 
ages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety 
of emotion and experience. 

Be that as may be, she was in their song. 
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed 
Had now persisted in the woods so long 
That probably it would never be lost. 

Never again would bird’s song be the same. 
And to do that to birds was why she came. 

I hope if he is where he sees me now 
He’s so far off he can’t see what I’ve come to. 
You can come down from everything to nothing. 
All is, if I’d a-known when I was young 
And full of it, that this would be the end. 
It doesn’t seem as if I’d had the courage 
To make so free and kick up in folk’s faces. 

I might have, but it doesn’t seem as if. 

Robert Frost 

[ 343 

The emotions in the first passage are tender, happy, and its 
reflections of a kind which could only be made by an educated 
man. The emotions in the second are violent and tragic, and 
the speaker a woman with no schooling. Yet the diction in 
both is equally simple. There are a few words the man uses 
which the woman would not use herself, but none she could 
not understand; her syntax is a little cruder than his, but 
only a little. Yet their two voices sound as distinct as they 
sound authentic. 

Frost’s poetic speech is the speech of a mature mind, fully 
awake and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream 
or of uncontrollable passion. Except in reported speech, inter- 
jections, imperatives and rhetorical interrogatives are rare. This 
does not mean, of course, that his poems are lacking in feeling; 
again and again, one is aware of strong, even violent, emotion 
behind what is actually said, but the saying is reticent, the 
poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity. It would be im- 
possible for Frost, even if he wished, to produce an unabashed 
roar of despair, as Shakespeare’s tragic heroes so often can, 
but the man who wrote the following lines has certainly been 
acquainted with despair. 

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet 
When far away an interrupted cry 
Came over houses from another street. 

But not to call me back or say good-bye. 

And further still at an unearthly height 
One luminary clock against the sky 
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right. 

I have been one acquainted with the night. 

Every style has its limitations. It would be as impossible 
to write “Ebauche d’un Serpent” in the style of Frost as it 
would be to write “The Death of the Hired Man” in the 
style of Valery. A style, like Frost’s which approximates to 
ordinary speech is necessarily contemporary, the style of a man 
living in the first half of the twentieth century; it is not well 
suited, therefore, to subjects from the distant past, in which 


344 ] 

the difference betw^n then and today is significant, or to 
mythical subjects which are timeless. 

Neither Frost’s version of the Job story in A Masque of 
Reason nor his version of the Jonah story in A Masque of 
Mercy seems to me quite to come off; both are a little self- 
consciously in modem dress. 

Nor is such a style well-suited to official public occasions 
when a poet must speak about and on behalf of the Civitas 
Terrenae. Frost’s tone of voice, even in his dramatic pieces, 
is that of a man talking to himself, thinking aloud and hardly 
aware of an audience. This manner is, of course, like all 
manners, calculated, and more sophisticated than most. The 
calculation is sound when the poems are concerned with 
personal emotions, but when the subject is one of public affairs 
or ideas of general interest, it may be a miscalculation. “Build 
Soil, a Political Pastoral” which Frost composed for the 
National Party Convention at Columbia University in 1932, 
was much criticized at the time by the Liberal-Left for being 
reactionary. Reading it today, one wonders what all their fuss 
was about, but the fireside-chat I’m-a-plain-fellow manner is 
still irritating. One finds oneself wishing that Columbia had 
invited Yeats instead; he might have said the most outrageous 
things, but he would have put on a good act, and that is what 
we want from a poet when he speaks to us of what concerns 
us, not as private persons but as citizens. Perhaps Frost himself 
felt uneasy, for the last two lines of the poem, and the best, 
run thus: 

We’re too unseparate. And going home 
From company means coming to our senses. 

Any poetry which aims at being a clarification of life must 
be concerned with two questions about which all men, whether 
they read poetry or not, seek clarification. 

i) Who am I? What is the difference between man and 
all other creatures? What relations are possible between 
them? What is man’s status in the universe? What are 
the conditions of his existence which he must accept as 
his fate which no wishing can alter? 

Robert Frost 

[ 345 

2 ) Whom ought 1 to become? What are the charicter- 
istics of the hero, the authentic man whom everybody 
should admire and try to become? Vice versa, what are 
the characteristics of the churl, the xmauthentic man 
whom everybody should try to avoid becoming? 

We all seek answers to these questions which shall be uni- 
versally valid under all circumstances, but the experiences to 
which we put them are always local both in time and place. 
What any poet has to say a1x>ut man’s status in nature, for 
example, depends in part upon the landscape and climate he 
happens to live in and in part upon the reactions to it of his 
personal temperament. A poet brought up in the tropics can- 
not have the same vision as a poet brought up in Hertfordshire 
and, if they inhabit the same landscape, the chirpy social 
endomorph will give a different picture of it from that of the 
melancholic withdrawn ectomorph. 

The nature in Frost’s poetry is the nature of New England. 
New England is made of granite, is mountainous, densely 
wooded, and its soil is poor. It has a long severe winter, a 
summer that is milder and more pleasant than in most parts 
of the States, a short and sudden Spring, a slow and theatri- 
cally beautiful fall. Since it adjoins the eastern seaboard, it 
was one of the first areas to be settled but, as soon as the more 
fertile lands to the West were opened up, it began to lose 
population. Tourists and city dwellers who can afford a 
summer home may arrive for the summer, but much land 
which was once cultivated has gone back to the wild. 

One of Frost’s favorite images is the image of the abandoned 
house. In Britain or Europe, a ruin recalls either historical 
change, political acts like war or enclosure, or, in the case 
of abandoned mine buildings, a successful past which came 
to an end, not because nature was too strong, but because 
she had been robbed of eveiything she possessed. A ruin in 
Europe, therefore, tends to arouse reflections about human 
injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human 
pride. But in Frost’s poetry, a ruin is an image of 
human heroism, of a defense in the narrow pass against hope- 
less odds. 


346 1 

1 came an errand one cloud-blowing morning 
To a slab-built, black-paper-covered house 
Of one room and one window and one door, 

The only dwelling in a waste cut over 
A hundred square miles round it in the mountains: 

• And that not dwelt in now by men or women. 

(It never had been dwelt in, though, by women.) 

Here further up the mountain slope 
Than there was ever any hope. 

My father built, enclosed a spring, 

Strung chains of wall round everything. 

Subdued the growth of earth to grass. 

And brought our various lives to pass. 

A dozen girls and boys we were. 

The mountain seemed to like the stir 
And made of us a litde while — 

With always something in her smile. 

To-day she wouldn't know our name. 

(No girl’s of course has stayed the same.) 

The mountain pushed us off her knees. 

And now her lap is full of trees. 

Thumbing through Frost’s Collected Poems, I find twenty- 
one in which the season is winter as compared with five in 
which it is spring, and in two of these there is still snow on 
the ground; I find twenty-seven in which the time is night 
and seventeen in which the weather is stormy. 

'The commonest human situation in his poetry is of one 
man, or a man and wife, alone in a small isolated house in a 
snowbound forest after dark. 

Where I could think of no thoroughfare. 

Away on the mountain up far too high, 

A blinding headlight shifted glare 
And began to bounce dowm a granite stair 
Like a star fresh-fallen out of the sky. 

Robert Frost 

i 347 

And I away in my opposite wood 
Am touched by that unintimate light 
And made feel less alone than I rightly should, 
For traveler there could do me no good 
Were I in trouble with night tonight. 

We looked and looked, but after all where are we? 

Do we know any better where we are. 

And how it stands between the night tonight 
And a man with a smokey lantern chimney. 

How different from the way it ever stood? 

In “Two Look at Two,” nature, as represented by a buck stag 
and a doe, responds in sympathy to man, as represented by 
a boy and girl, but the point of the poem is that this sympa- 
thetic response is a miraculous exception. The normal response 
is that described in “The Most of It.” 

Some morning from the boulder-broken beach 
He would cry out on life that what it wants 
Is not its own love back in copy speech. 

But counter-love, original response. 

And nothing ever came of what he cried 
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed 
In the cliff’s talus on the other side. 

And then in the far distant water splashed. 

But after a time allowed for it to swim. 

Instead of proving human when it neared 
And some one else additional to him. 

As a great buck it powerfully appeared . . . 

Nature, however, is not to Frost, as she was to Melville, 

It must be a little more in favor of man. 

Say a fraction of one per cent at least. 

Or our number living wouldn’t be steadily more. 


348 3 

She is, rather, the Dura Virum Nutrix who, by her apparent 
indifference and hostility, even, calls forth all man’s powers 
and courage and makes a real man of him. 

Courage is not to be confused with romantic daring. It 
includes caution and cunning. 

All we who prefer to live 
Have a little whistle we give. 

And flash at the least alarm 
We dive down under the farm 

and even financial prudence. 

Better to do down dignified 

With bough ten friendship at your side 

Then none at all. Provide, provide! 

There have been European poets who have come to similar 
conclusions about the isolation of the human condition, and 
nature’s indifference to human values, but, compared with 
an American, they are at a disadvantage in expressing them. 
Living as they do in a well, even overpopulated, countryside 
where, thanks to centuries of cultivation. Mother Earth has 
acquired human features, they are forced to make abstract 
philosophical statements or use uncommon atypical images, 
so that what they say seems to be imposed upon them by 
theory and temperament rather than by facts. An American 
poet like Frost, on the other hand, can appeal to facts for 
which any theory must account and which any temperament 
must admit. 

The Frostian man is isolated not only in space but also in time. 
In Frost’s poems the nostalgic note is seldom, if ever, struck. 
When he writes a poem about childhood like “Wild Grapes,’’ 
childhood is not seen as a magical Eden which vidll all too 
soon, alas, be lost, but as a school in which the first lessons 
of adult life are learned. The setting of one of his best long 
poems, “The Generations of Man, ’ is the ancestral home 
of the Stark family in the town of Bow, New Hampshire. 
Bow is a rock-strewn township where farming has fallen off 
and sproutlands flourish since the axe has gone. The Stark 

Robert Frost 

I 349 

family mansion is by now reduced to an old cellar-hole'" at the 
side of a by-road. The occasion described in the poem is a 
gathering together from all over of the Stark descendants, an 
advertising stunt thought up by the governor of the state. • 
The characters are a boy Stark and a girl Stark, distant cousins, 
who meet at the cellar-hole and are immediately attracted to 
each other. Their conversation turns, naturally, to their com- 
mon ancestors, but, in fact, they know nothing about them. 
The boy starts inventing stories and doing imaginary imitations 
of their voices as a way of courtship, making their ancestors 
hint at marriage and suggest building a new summer home 
on the site of the old house. The real past, that is to say, is 
unknown and unreal to them; its role in the poem is to 
provide a lucky chance for the living to meet. 

Like Gray, Frost has written a poem on a deserted grave- 
yard. Gray is concerned with the possible lives of the un- 
known dead; the past is more imaginatively exciting to him 
than the present. But Frost does not try to remember anything; 
what moves him is that death, which is always a present terror, 
is no longer present here, having moved on like a pioneer. 

It would be easy to be clever 
And tell the stones; men hate to die 
And have stopped dying now for ever. 

I think they would believe the lie. 

What he finds valuable in man’s temporal existence is the 
ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a 
discovery or a new start. 

One of the lies would make it out that nothing 
Ever presents itself before us twice. 

Where would we be at last if that were so? 

Our very life depends on everything’s 
Recurring till we answer from within. 

The thousandth time may prove the charm. 

Frost has written a number of pastoral eclogues and, no 
doubt, has taken a sophisticated pleasure in using what is, by 
tradition, the most aristocratic and idyllic of all literary forms 


350 ] 

to depict democratic realities. If the landscape of New England 
is unarcadian, so is its social life; the leisured class with 
nothing to do but cultivate its sensibility which the European 
pastord presupposes, is simply not there. Of course, as in all 
societies, social distinctions exist. In New England, Protestants 
of Anglo-Scotch stock consider themselves a cut above Roman 
Catholics and those of a Latin race, and the most respectable 
Protestant denominations are the Congregationalists and the 
Unitarians. Thus, in “The Ax-Helve,” the Yankee farmer is 
aware of his social condescension in entering the house of his 
French-Canadian neighbor, Baptiste. 

I shouldn’t mind his being overjoyed 
(If overjoyed he was) at having got me 
Where I must judge if what he knew about an ax 
That not everybody else knew was to count 
For nothing in the measure of a neighbor. 

Hard if, though cast away for life with Yankees, 

A Frenchman couldn’t get his human rating! 

And in “Snow,” Mrs. Cole passes judgment upon the Evan- 
gelical preacher, Meserve. 

I detest the thought of him 
With his ten children under ten years old. 

I hate his wretched little Racket Sect, 

All’s ever I heard of it, which isn’t much. 

Yet in both poems the neighbor triumphs over the snob. 
The Yankee acknowledges Baptiste’s superior skill, and the 
Coles stay up all night in concern until they hear that Meserve 
has reached home safely through the storm. 

In the Frost pastoral, the place of the traditional worldly- 
wise, world-weary courtier is taken by the literary city dweller, 
often a college student who has taken a job for the summer 
on a farm; the rustics he encounters are neither comic bump- 
kins nor noble savages. 

In “A Hundred Collars,” a refined shy college professor 
meets in a small town hotel bedroom a fat whisky-drinking 

Robert Frost 

[ 351 

vulgarian who canvasses the farms around on beh^f of a 
local newspaper. If, in the end, the reader’s sympathies go 
to the vulgarian, the vulgarian is not made aesthetically appeal- 
ing nor the professor unpleasant. The professor means well 
— he is a democrat, if not at heart, in principle — ^but he is 
the victim of a way of life which has narrowed his human 
sympathies and interests. The vulgarian is redeemed by his 
uninhibited friendliness which is perfectly genuine, not a 
professional salesman’s manner. Though vulgar, he is not a 

‘One would suppose they might not be as glad 
to see you as you are to see them.’ 


Because I want their dollar? I don’t want 
Anything they’ve got. I never dun. 

I’m there, and they can pay me if they like. 

I go nowhere on purpose: I happen by.’ 

In “The Code,’’ a town-bred farmer unwittingly offends one 
of his hired hands. 

‘What is there wrong?’ 

‘Something you just now said.’ 

What did I say?’ 

‘About our taking pains.’ 

‘To cock the hay — because it’s going to shower? 

I said that more than half an hour ago. 

I said it to myself as much as you.’ 

‘You didn’t know. But James is one big fool. 

He thought you meant to find fault with his work, 
That’s what the average farmer would have meant.’ . . . 
‘He’s a fool if that’s the way he takes me.’ 

‘Don’t let it bother you. You’ve found out something. 

The hand that knows his business won’t be told 
To do work better or faster — those two things. . . .’ 

The ignorance of the town-bred farmer is made use of, not 
to blame him, but to praise the quality which, after courage. 


35 ^ ] 

Frost ranks as the highest of the virtues, the self-respect which 
comes from taking a pride in something. It may be a pride 
in one’s own skill, the pride of the axe-maker Baptiste, the 
pride of the Hired Man who dies from a broken heart since 
old age has taken from him the one accomplishment, build- 
ing a load of hay, which had hitherto prevented him from 
feeling utterly worthless, or it may be a pride which, from 
a worldly point of view, is a folly, the pride of the man who 
has failed as a farmer, burned his house down for the insur- 
ance money, bought a telescope with the proceeds and taken 
a lowly job as a ticket agent on the railroad. The telescope is 
not a good one, the man is poor, but he is proud of his tele- 
scope and happy. 

Every poet is at once a representative of his culture and its 
critic. Frost has never written satires, but it is not hard to 
guess what, as an American, he approves and disapproves of 
in his own countrymen. The average American is a stoic and, 
contrary to what others are apt to conclude from his free-and- 
easy friendly manner, reticent, far more reticent than the 
average Englishman about showing his feelings. He believes 
in independence because he has to; life is too mobile and 
circumstances change too fast for him to be supported by any 
fixed frame of family or social relations. In a crisis he will 
help his neighbor, whoever he may be, but he will regard 
someone who is always coming for help as a bad neighbor, 
and he disapproves of all self-pity and nostalgic regret. All 
these qualities find their expression in Frost’s poetry, but there 
are other American characteristics which are not to be found 
there, the absence of which implies disapproval; the belief, 
for instance, that it should be possible, once the right gimmick 
has been found, to build the New Jerusalem on earth in 
half an hour. One might describe Frost as a Tory, provided 
that one remembers that all American political parties are 

Hardy, Yeats and Frost have all written epitaphs for them- 

Robert Frost 

[ 353 


I never cared for life, life cared for me. 

And hence I owe it some fidelity. ... 


Cast a cold eye 

On life and death. 

Horseman, pass by. 


I would have written of me on my stone 

I had a lover’s quarrel with the world. 

Of the three, Frost, surely, comes off best. Hardy seems to be 
stating the Pessimist’s Case rather than his real feelings. I 
never cared . . . Never? Now, Mr. Hardy, really! Yeats’ 
horseman is a stage prop; the passer-by is much more likely 
to be a motorist. But Frost convinces me that he is telling 
neither more nor less than the truth about himself. And, when 
it comes to wisdom, is not having a lover’s quarrel with life 
more worthy of Prospero than not caring or looking coldly? 


The land was ours before we were the land’s. 
She was our land more than a hundred years 
Before u’e were her -people. She was ours 
In Massachusetts, in Virginia, 

But we were England’s, still colonials. 
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by. 
Possessed by what we now no more possessed. 
Something we were withholding made us weak 
Until we found out that it was ourselves 
VJe were withholding from our land of living. 
And forthwith found salvation in surrender. 
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright 
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war') 

To the land vaguely realizing westward. 

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced. 

Such as she was, such as she would become. 


One often hears it said that only in this century have: the 
writers of the United States learned to stand on their own feet 
and be truly American, that, previously, they were slavish 
imitators of British literature. Applied to the general reading 

American Poetry 

[ 355 

public and academic circles, this has a certain amount of truth 
hut, so far as the writers themselves are concerned, it is quite 
false. From Bryant on there is scarcely one American poet 
whose work, if unsigned, could be mistaken for that of an 
Englishman. What English poet, for example, in need of 
emotive place names for a serious poem, would have employed, 
neither local names nor names famous in history or mythology, 
but names made up by himself as Poe did in “Ulalume”? 
Would an English poet have received the idea of writing a 
scientific cosmological prose poem and of prefacing it thus: 
“I oflFer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth- 
teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth, con- 
stituting it true. . . . What I here propound is true: therefore it 
cannot die. . . . Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish 
this work to be judged after I am dead.” (Poe, Preface to 

Maud, The Song of Hiawatha and the first edition of Leaves 
of Grass all appeared in the same year, 1855: no two jx)ets 
could be more unlike each other than Longfellow and Whit- 
man — such diversity is in itself an American phenomenon — 
yet, when compared with Tennyson, each in his own way 
shows characteristics of the New World. Tennyson and Long- 
fellow were both highly skillful technicians in conventional 
forms and both were regarded by their countrymen as the 
respectable mouthpieces of their age, and yet, how different 
they are. There is much in Tennyson that Longfellow would 
never have dared to write, for the peculiar American mixture 
of Puritan conscience and democratic license can foster in 
some cases a genteel horror of the coarse for which no Eng- 
lishman has felt the need. On the other hand Longfellow had 
a curiosity about the whole of European literature compared 
with which Tennyson, concerned only with the poetry of his 
own land and the classical authors on whom he was educated, 
seems provincial. Even if there had been Red Indians roaming 
the North of Scotland, unsubjugated and unassimilable, one 
cannot imagine Tennyson sitting down to write a long poem 
about them and choosing for it a Finnish meter. Leaving aside 
all questions of style, there is a difference between Tennyson's 


356 ] 

Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington and Whitman’s 
elegy for President Lincoln When lilacs last in the dooryard 
bloom’d which is significant. Tennyson, as one would expect 
from the title of his poem, mourns for a great public official 
figure, but it would be very hard to guess from the words of 
Whitman’s poem that the man he is talking of was the head 
of a State; one would naturally think that he was some close 
personal friend, a private individual. 

To take one more example — two poets, contemporaries, 
both women, both religious, both introverts preoccupied with 
renunciation — Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson; could 
anyone imagine either of them in the country of the other? 
When I try to fancy such translations, the only Americans I 
can possibly imagine as British are minor p>oets with a turn 
for light verse like Lowell and Holmes; and the only British 
poets who could conceivably have been American are eccen- 
trics like Blake and Hopkins. 

Normally, in comparing the poetry of two cultures, the 
obvious and easiest point at which to start is with a comparison 
of the peculiar characteristics, grammatical, rhetorical, rhyth- 
mical, of their respective languages, for even the most formal 
and elevated styles of poetry are more conditioned by the 
spoken tongue, the language really used by the men of that 
country, than by anything else. In the case of British and 
American poetry, however, this is the most subtle difference 
of all and the hardest to define. Any Englishman, with a litde 
effort, can learn to pronounce “the letter a in psalm and calm. 

. . . with the sound of a in candle,” to say thumb-tacks instead 
of drawing-fins or twenty-minutes-of-one instead of twenty- 
minutes-to-one, and discover that, in the Middle West, bought 
rhymes with hot, but he will still be as far from speaking 
American English as his Yankee cousin who comes to England 
will be from speaking the Queen’s. No dramatist in either 
country who has introduced a character from the other side, 
has, to my knowledge, been able to make his speech convinc- 
ing. What the secret of the difference is, I cannot put my finger 
on; William Carlos Williams, who has thought more than most 
about this problem, says that "Pace is one of its most important 

American Poetry [ 357 

manifestations” and to this one might add another, "Pitch. If 
undefinable, the difference is, however, immediately recog- 
nizable by the ear, even in verse where the formal conventions 
are the same. 

He must have had a father and a mother — 

In fact IVe heard him say so — ^and a dog, 

As a boy should, I venture; and the dog. 

Most likely, was the only man who knew him. 

A dog, for all I know, is what he needs 
As much as anything right here today. 

To counsel him about his disillusions, 

Old aches, and parturitions of what’s coming — 

A dog of orders, an emeritus. 

To wag his tail at him when he comes home. 

And then to put his paws up on his knees 
And say, ‘For God’s sake, what’s it all about?* 

(e. a. ROBINSON, "Ben Jonson Entertains 
a Man from Stratford.”) 

Whatever this may owe to Browning, the fingering is quite 
different and un-British. Again, how American in rhythm as 
well as in sensibility is this stanza by Robert Frost: 

But no, I was out for stars: 

I would not come in. 

I meant not even if asked. 

And I hadn’t been. 

(“Come In.”) 

Until quite recendy an English writer, like one of any 
European country, could presuppose two conditions, a nature 
which was mythologized, humanized, on the whole friendly, 
and a human society which had become in time, whatever 
succession of invasions it may have suffered in the past, in 
race and religion more or less homogeneous and in which 
most people lived and died in the locality where they were 


358 1 

Christianity might have deprived Aphrodite, Apollo, the 
local genius, of their divinity but as figures for the forces of 
nature, as a mode of thinking about the creation, they re- 
mained valid for poets and their readers alike. Descartes might 
reduce the nonhuman universe to a mechanism but the feel- 
ings of Europeans about the sun and moon, the cycle of the 
seasons, the local landscape remained unchanged. Wotds- 
worth might discard the mythological terminology but the 
kind of relation between nature and man which he described 
was the same personal one. Even when nineteenth-century 
biology began to trouble men’s minds with the thought that 
the universe might be without moral values, their immediate 
experience was still of a friendly and lovable nature. Whatever 
their doubts and convictions about the purpose and significance 
of the universe as a whole, Tennyson’s Lincolnshire or Hardy’s 
Dorset were places where they felt completely at home, land- 
scapes with faces of their own which a human being could 
recognize and trust. 

But in America, neither the size nor the condition nor the 
climate of the continent encourages such intimacy. It is an 
unforgettable experience for anyone bom on the other side of 
the Atlantic to take a plane journey by night across the 
United States. Looking down he will see the lights of some 
town like a last outpost in a darkness stretching for hours 
ahead, and realize that, even if there is no longer an actual 
frontier, this is still a continent only partially settled and 
developed, where human activity seems a tiny thing in com- 
parison to the magnitude of the earth, and the equality of 
men not some dogma of politics or jurispmdence but a self- 
evident fact. He will behold a wild nature, compared with 
which the landscapes of Salvator Rosa are as cosy as Arcadia 
and which cannot possibly be thought of in human or personal 
terms. If Henry Adams could write: 

When Adams was a boy in Boston, the best chemist in 
the place had probably never heard of Venus except by 
way of scandal, or of the Virgin except as idolatry. . . . 
The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and 

American Poetry [ 359 

seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither 
Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force — ^at most as 
sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid 

the reason for this was not simply that the Mayflower carried 
iconophobic dissenters but also diat the nature which Amer- 
icans, even in New England, had every reason to fear could 
not possibly be imagined as a mother. A white whale whom 
man can neither understand nor be understood by, whom 
only a madman like Gabriel can wonhip, the only relation- 
ship with whom is a combat to the deadb by which a man’s 
courage and skill are tested and judged, or the great buck 
who answers the poet’s prayer for "someone else additional 
to him” in "The Most of It” are more apt symbols. Thoreau, 
who certainly tried his best to become intimate with nature, 
had to confess 

I walk in nature still alone 
And know no one, 

Discern no lineament nor feature 
Of any creature. 

Though all the firmament 
Is o’er me bent. 

Yet still I miss the grace 

Of an intelligent and kindred face. 

I still must seek the friend 
Who does with nature blend. 

Who is the person in her mask, 

He is the man I ask. . . . 

Many poets in the Old World have become disgusted with 
human civilization but what the earth would be like if the 
race became extinct they cannot imagine; an American like 
Robinson Jeffers can quite easily, for he has seen with his 
own eyes country as yet untouched by history. 

In a land which is fully settled, most men must accept their 
local environment or try to change it by political means; only 
the exceptionally gifted or adventurous can leave to seek his 


360 ] 

fortune elsewhere. In America, on the other hand, to move on 
and make a fresh start somewhere else is still the normal reac- 
tion to dissatisfaction or failure. Such social fluidity has impor- 
tant psychological effects. Since movement involves breaking 
social and personal ties, the habit creates an attitude towards 
personal relationships in which impermanence is taken for 

One could find no better illustration of the difference be- 
tween the Old and the New World than the respective con- 
clusions of Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn, both the heroes 
of which are orphans. When Oliver is at last adopted by 
Mr. Brownlow, his fondest dream, to have a home, to be 
surrounded by familiar friendly faces, to receive an education, 
is realized. Huck is offered adoption too, significantly by a 
woman not a man, but refuses because he knows she would 
try to “civilize” him, and announces his intention to light 
out by himself for the West; Jim, who has been his “buddy” 
in a friendship far closer than any enjoyed by Oliver, is left 
behind like an old shoe, just as in Moby Dick Ishmael be- 
comes a blood-brother of Queequeg and then forgets all about 
him. Naturally the daydream of the lifelong comrade in ad- 
venture often appears in American literature: 

Camerado, I give you my hand! 

I give you my love more precious than money, 

I give you myself before preaching or law; 

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? 

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live? 

(whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”) 

but no American seriously expects such a dream to come 

To be able at any time to break with the past, to move and 
keep on moving lessens the significance not only of the past 
but also of the future which is reduced to the immediate 
future, and minimizes the importance of political action. A 
European may be a conservative who thinks that the right 
form of society has been discovered already, or a liberal who 

American Poetry [361 

believes it is in process of being realized, or a revolutionary 
who thinks that after long dark ages it can now be realized 
for the first time, but each of them knows that, by reason- or 
force, he must convince the others that he is right; he may 
be an optimist about the future or a pessimist. None of these 
terms applies accurately to an American, for his profoundest 
feeling towards the future is not that it will be better or 
worse but that it is unpredictable, that all things, good and 
bad, will change. No failure is irredeemable, no success a 
final satisfaction. Democracy is the best form of government, 
not because men will necessarily lead better or happier lives 
under it, but because it permits constant experiment; a given 
experiment may fail but the people have a right to make their 
own mistakes. America has always been a country of amateurs 
where the professional, that is to say, the man who claims 
authority as a member of an elite which knows the law in 
some field or other, is an object of distrust and resentment. 

Amerika, du hast es hesser 
Als unser Kontinent, der alte, 

Hast keine verfallenen Schloesser 
Und keine Basalte 

wrote Goethe, by keine Basalte meaning, I presume, no violent 
political revolutions. This is a subject about which, in relation 
to their own histories, the English and the Americans cherish 
opposite fictions. Between 1533 and 1688 the English went 
through a succession of revolutions in which a Church was 
imposed on them by the engines of the State, one king was 
executed and another deposed, yet they prefer to forget it 
and pretend that the social structure of England is the product 
of organic peaceful growth. The Americans, on the other 
hand, like to pretend that what was only a successful war 
of secession was a genuine revolution. 

If we apply the term revolution to what happened in North 
America between 1776 and 1829, it has a special meaning. 

Normally, the word describes the process by which man 
transforms himself from one kind of man, living in one kind 
of society, with one way of looking at the world, into another 

kind of man, another society, another amceptum life. So 
it is with the Papal, the Lutheran, the English, and the French 
revolutions. The American case is different; it is not a ques- 
tion of the Old Man transforming himself into the New, but 
of the New Man becoming alive to the fact that he is new, 
that he has been transformed already without his having 
realized it. 

The War of Independence was the first step, the leaving 
of the paternal roof in order to find out who one is; the second 
and more important step, the actual discovery, came with 
Jackson. It was then that it first became clear that, despite 
similarities of form, representative government in America 
was not to be an imitation of the English parliamentary 
system, and that, though the vocabulary of the Constitution 
may be that of the French Enlightenment, its American 
meaning is quite distinct. There is indeed an American men- 
tality which is new and unique in the world but it is the 
product less of conscious political action than of nature, of 
the new and unique environment of the American continent. 
Even the most revolutionary feature of the Constitution, the 
separation of Church and State, was a recognition of a condi- 
tion which had existed since the first settlements were made 
by various religious denominations whose control of the 
secular authority could only be local. From the beginning 
America had been a pluralist state and pluralism is incom- 
patible with an Established Church. The Basalte in American 
history, the Civil War, might indeed be called Counterrevolu- 
tion, for it was fought primarily on the issue not of slavery 
but of unity, that is, not for a freedom but for a limitation on 
freedom, to ensure that the United States should remain 
pluralist and not disintegrate into an anarchic heap of frag- 
ments. Pluralist and experimental: in place of verfallenen 
Schloesser, America has ghost towns and the relics of New 
Jerusalems which failed. 

The American had not intended to become what he was; 
he had been made so by emigration and the nature of the 
American continent. An emigrant never knows what he wants, 
only what he does not want. A man who comes from a land 

settled for centuries to a virgin wilderness where he faces 
problems with which none of his traditions and habits was 
intended to deal cannot foresee the future but must improvise 
himself from day to day. It is not surprising, therefore, that 
the first clear realization of the novelty and importance of the 
United States should have come not from an American but 
from outsiders, like Cr^vecoeur and de Tocqueville. 

In a society whose dominant task is still that of the pioneer 
— the physical struggle with nature, and a nature, moreover, 
particularly recalcitrant and violent — the intellectual is not 
a figure of much importance. Those with intellectual and 
artistic tastes, finding themselves a despised or at best an 
ignored minority, are apt in return to despise the society in 
which they live as vulgar and think nostalgically of more 
leisured and refined cultures. The situation of the first impor- 
tant American poets — ^Emerson, Thoreau, Poe — was therefore 
doubly difficult. As writers, and therefore intellectuals, they 
were without status with the majority; and, on the other hand, 
the cultured minority of which they were members looked 
to England for its literary standards and did not want to think 
or read about America. 

This dependence on English literature was a hindrance to 
their development in a way which it would not have been had 
they lived elsewhere. A poet living in England, for instance, 
might read nothing but French poetry, or he might move to 
Italy and know only English, without raising any serious 
barrier between himself and his experiences. Indeed, in 
Europe, whenever some journalist raises the patriotic demand 
for an English or French or Dutch literature free from foreign 
influences, we know him at once to be a base fellow. The 
wish for an American literature, on the other hand, has nothing 
to do really, with politics or national conceit; it is a demand 
for honesty. All European literature so far has presupposed 
two things: a nature which is humanized, mythologized, usu- 
ally friendly, and a human society in which most men stay 
where they were born and do not move about much. Neither 
of these presuppositions was valid for America, where nature 
was virgin, devoid of history, usually hostile; and society was 


364 ] 

fluid, its groupings always changing as men moved on some- 
where else. 

The European romantics may praise the charms of wild 
desert landscape, but they know that for them it is never more 
than a few hours’ walk from a comfortable inn: they may 
celebrate the joys of solitude but they know that any time 
they choose they can go back to the family roof or to town 
and that there their cousins and nephews and nieces and 
aunts, the club and the salons, will still be going on exactly 
as they left them. Of real desert, of a loneliness which knows 
of no enduring relationships to cherish or reject, they have 
no conception. 

The achievement of Emerson and Thoreau was twofold: 
they wrote of the American kind of nature, and they perceived 
what qualities were most needed by members of the American 
kind of society, which was threatened, not by the petrified 
injustice of any tradition, but by the fluid irresponsibility of 
crowd opinion. Their work has both the virtues and the vices 
of the isolated and the protestant: on the one hand it is 
always genuine and original, it is never superficial; on the 
other it is a little too cranky, too earnest, too scornful of ele- 
gance. Just as in their political thinking Americans are apt 
to identify the undemocratic with monarchy, so, in their 
aesthetics, they are apt to identify the falsely conventional 
with rhyme and meter. The prose of Emerson and Thoreau 
is superior to their verse, because verse in its formal nature pro- 
tests against protesting; it demands that to some degree we ac- 
cept things as they are, not for any rational or moral reason, but 
simply because they happen to be that way; it implies an 
element of frivority in the creation. 

Whatever one may feel about Whitman's poetry, one is 
bound to admit that he was the first clearly to recognize what 
the conditions were with which any future. American poet 
would have to come to terms. 

Plenty of songs had been sung — ^beautiful, matchless 

songs — adjusted to other lands than these. ... the 

Old World has had the poems of myths, fictions, feudal- 

American Poetry 

[ 365 

ism, conquest, caste, dynastic wars, and splendid excep- 
tional characters, whidi have been great; but the New 
World needs the poems of realities and science and of , 
the democratic average and basic equality. . . . 'As for 
native American individuality, the distinctive and ideal 
type of Western character (as consistent with the opera- 
tive and even money-making features of United States 
humanity as chosen knights, gendemen and warriors 
were the ideals of the centuries of European feudalism) 
it has not yet appeared. I have allowed the stress of my 
poems from beginning to end to bear upon American in- 
dividuality and assist it — not only because that is a great 
lesson in Nature, amid all her generalizing laws, but as 
counterpoise to the levelling tendencies of Democracy. 

The last sentence makes it quite clear that by the "average” 
hero who was to replace the “knight,” Whitman did not 
mean the mediocre, but the individual whose "exceptional 
character” is not derived from birth, education or occupation, 
and that he is aware of how difficult it is for such an individual 
to appear without the encouragement which comes from 
membership in some elite. 

What he does not say, and perhaps did not realize, is that, 
in a democracy, the status of the poet himself is changed. 
However fantastic, in the light of present-day realities, his 
notion may be, every European poet, I believe, still instinc- 
tively thinks of himself as a “clerk,” a member of a professional 
brotherhood, with a certain social status irrespective of the 
number of his readers (in his heart of hearts the audience he 
desires and expects are those who govern the country), and 
as taking his place in an unbroken historical succession. In 
the States, poets have never had or imagined they had such 
a status, and it is up to each individual poet to justify his 
existence by offering a unique product. It would be grossly 
unjust to assert that there are fewer lovers of poetry in the 
New World than in the Old — in how many places in the 
latter could a poet demand and receive a substantial sum for 
reading his work aloud? — but there is a tendency, perhaps. 


366 ] 

in the former, for audiences to be drawn rather by a name than 
a poem, and for a poet, on his side, to demand approval for 
his work not simply because it is good but because it is his. 
To some degree every American poet feels that the whole 
responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his 
shoulders, that he is a literary aristocracy of one. “Tradition,” 
wrote Mr. T. S. Eliot in a famous essay, “cannot be inherited, 
and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.” I do 
not think that any European critic would have said just this. 
He would not, of course, deny that every poet must work hard 
but the suggestion in the first half of the sentence that no 
sense of tradition is acquired except by conscious effort would 
seem strange to him. 

There are advantages and disadvantages in both attitudes. 
A British poet can take writing more for granted and so write 
with a lack of strain and overeamestness. American poetry 
has many tones, but the tone of a man talking to a group of 
his peers is rare; for a “serious” poet to write light verse is 
frowned on in America and if, when he is asked why he 
writes poetry, he replies, as any European poet would, “For 
fun,” his audience will be shocked. On the other hand, a 
British poet is in much greater danger of becoming lazy, or 
academic, or irresponsible. One comes across passages, even 
in very fine English poets, which make one think: “Yes, very 
effective but does he believe what he is saying?”: in American 
poetry such passages are extremely rare. The first thing that 
strikes a reader about the best American poets is how utterly 
unlike each other they are. Where else in the world, for 
example, could one find seven poets of approximately the same 
generation so different as Ezra Pound, W. C. Williams, Vachel 
Lindsay, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings 
and Laura Riding? The danger for the American poet is not 
of writing like everybody else but of crankiness and a 
of his own manner. 

Plato, following Damon of Athens, said that when the 
modes of music change, the walls of the city are shaken. 
It might be truer to say, perhaps, that a change in the modes 
gives warning of a shaking of the walls in the near future. 

American Poetry 

I 367 

The social strains which later break out in political action are 
first experienced by artists as a feeling that the current modes 
of expression are no longer capable of dealing with their real 
concerns. Thus, when one thinks of “modern” painting, music, 
fiction or poetry, the names which immediately come to 
mind as its leaders and creators are those of persons who were 
bom roughly between 1870 and 1890 and who began pro- 
ducing their “new” work before the outbreak of World War 
I in 1914, and in poetry and fiction, at least, American names 
are prominent. 

When a revolutionary break with the past is necessary it is 
an advantage not to be too closely identified with any one 
particular literature or any particular cultural group. Amer- 
icans like Eliot and Pound, for example, could be as curious 
about French or Italian poetry as about English and could 
hear poetry of the past, like the verse of Webster, freshly in 
a way that for an Englishman, trammeled by traditional 
notions of Elizabethan blank verse, would have been difficult. 

Further, as Americans, they were already familiar with the 
dehumanized nature and the social leveling which a techno- 
logical civilization was about to make universal and with which 
the European mentality was unprepared to deal. After his 
visit to America, de Tocqueville made a remarkable prophecy 
about the kind of poetry which a democratic society would 

I am persuaded that in the end democracy diverts the 
imagination from all that is external to man and fixes it 
on man alone. Democratic nations may amuse themselves 
for a while with considering the productions of nature, 
but they are excited in reality only by a survey of them- 
selves. . . . 

The poets who lived in aristocratic ages have been 
eminently successful in their delineation of certain inci- 
dents in the life of a people or a man; but none of 
them ever ventured to include within his performances 
the destinies of mankind, a task which poets writing in 
democratic ages may attempt. . . . 


368 ] 

It may be foreseen in like manner that poets living 
in democratic times will prefer the delineation of pas- 
sions and ideas to that of persons and achievements. The 
language, the dress, and the daily actions of men in 
democracies are repugnant to conceptions of the ideal. 

. . . This forces the poet constantly to search below the 
external surface which is palpable to the senses, in order 
to read the inner soul; and nothing lends itself more to 
the delineation of the ideal than the scrutiny of the 
hidden depths in the immaterial nature of man. . . . 
The destinies of mankind, man himself taken aloof from 
his country and his age, and standing in the presence of 
Nature and of God, with his passions, his doubts, his rare 
prosperities and inconceivable wretchedness, will become 
the chief, if not the sole, theme of poetry. 

If this be an accurate description of the poetry we call modern, 
then one might say that America has never known any other 


The Shield of Perseus 


If a man wants to set wp as an innkeeper and 
he does not succeed, it is not comic. If, on the 
contrary, a girl asks to he allowed to set up as 
a prostitute and she fads, which sometimes hap- 
pens, it is comic. 


A man's character may be inferred from nothing 
so surely as from the jest he takes in had part. 


General Definition 

A contradiction in the relation of the individual or the per- 
sonal to the universal or the impersonal which does not involve 
the spectator or hearer in suffering or pity, which in practice 
means that it must not involve the actor in real suffering. 

A situation in which the actor really suffers can only be found 
comic by children who see only the situation and are unaware 
of the suffering, as when a child laughs at a hunchback, or by 
human swine. 

The Shield of Perseus 

37i ] 

A few years ago, there was a rage in New York for telling 
■“Horror Jokes.” For example: 

A mother (to her blind daughter): Now, dear, shut 
your eyes and count twenty. Then open them, and 
you’ll find that you can see. 

Daughter (after counting twenty): But, Mummy, I still 
can’t see. 

Mother: April fool! 

This has the same relation to the comic as blasphemy has to 
belief in God, that is to say, it implies a knowledge of what is 
truly comic. 

We sometimes make a witty remark about someone which is 
also cruel, but we make it behind his back, not to his face, and 
we hope that nobody will repeat it to him. 

When we really hate someone, we cannot find him comic; 
there are no genuinely funny stories about Hitler. 

A sense of humor develops in a society to the degree that its 
members are simultaneously conscious of being each a unique 
person and of being all in common subjection to unalterable 

Primitive cultures have little sense of humor; firstly, because 
their sense of human individuality is weak — the tribe is the 
real unit — and, secondly, because, as animists or polytheists, 
they have little notion of necessity. To them, events do not 
occur because they must, but because some god or spirit 
chooses to make them happen. They recognize a contradiction 
between the individual and the universal only when it is a 
tragic contradiction involving exceptional suffering. 

In our own society, addicted gamblers who make a religion 
out of chance are invariably humorless. 

Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common 
denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them 
make me laugh. 

Notes on the Comic 

[ 373 

Some Types of Comic Contradiction 

O The operation of physical laws upon inorganic objects 
associated with a human being in such a way that it is they 
who appear to be acting from personal volition and their 
owner who appears to be the passive thing. 

Example: A man is walking in a storm protected by an um- 
brella when a sudden gust of wind blows it inside out. This 
is comic for two reasons: 

a) An umbrella is a mechanism designed by man to 
function in a particular manner, and its existence and 
effectiveness as a protection depend upon man’s under- 
standing of physical laws. An umbrella turning inside out 
is funnier than a hat blowing off because an umbrella is 
made to be opened, to change its shape when its owner 
wills. It now continues to change its shape, in obedience 
to the same laws, but against his will. 

b) The activating agent, the wind, is invisible, so the 
cause of the umbrella turning inside out appears to lie 
in the umbrella itself. It is not particularly funny if a 
tile falls and makes a hole in the umbrella, because the 
cause is visibly natural. 

When a film is run backwards, reversing the historical succes- 
sion of events, the flow of volition is likewise reversed and 
proceeds from the object to the subject. What was originally 
the action of a man taking off his coat becomes the action of 
a coat putting itself on a man. 

The same contradiction is the basis of most of the comic 
effects of the clown. In appearance he is the clumsy man 
whom inanimate objects conspire against to torment; this in 
itself is funny to watch, but our profounder amusement is 
derived from our knowledge that this is only an appearance, 
that, in reality, the accuracy with which the objects trip him 
up or hit him on the head is caused by the clown’s own skill. 

2) A clash between the laws of the inorganic which has no 
telos, and the behavior of living creatures who have one. 

The Skidd of Perseus 

374 ] 

Examfle: A nuin walking down the street, with his mind 
concentrated upon the purpose of his journey, fails to notice 
a banana skin, slips and falls down. Under the obsession of his 
goal — ^it may be a goal of thought — ^he forgets his subjection 
to the law or gravity. His goal need not necessarily be a unique 
and personal one; he may simply be looking for a public 
lavatory. All that matters is that he should be ignorine the 
present for the sake of the future. A child learning to walk, or 
an adult picking his way carefully over an icy sunace, are not 
funny if they fall down, because they are conscious of the 

Comic Situations in the Relationshif Between the Sexes 

As a natural creature a human being is bom either male or 
female and endowed with an impersonal tendency to repro- 
duce the human species by mating with any member of the 
opposite sex who is neither immature nor senile. In this 
tendency the individuality of any given male or female is 
subordinate to its general reproductive function. (Male and 
female created He them ... Be fruitful and multiply.^ 

As a historical person, every man and woman is a unique in- 
dividual, capable of entering into a unique relation of love 
with another person. As a person, the relationship takes 
precedence over any function it may also have. (It is not good 
for man to be done.') 

The ideal of marriage is a relationship in which both these 
elements are synthesized; husband and wife are simultane- 
ously involved in relations of physical love and the love of 
personal friendship. 

The synthesis might be easier to achieve if the two elements 
remained distinct, if the physical, that is, remained as imper- 
sonal as it is among the animals, and the personal relation was 
completely unerotic. 

In fact, however, we never experience sexual desire as a 
blind need which is indifferent to its sexual object; our per- 
sonal history and our culture introduce a selective element so 
that, even on the most physical level, some types ate more 
desirable than others. Our sexual desire, as such, is impersonal 

Notes on the Comic 

[ 375 

in that it lacks all consideration for the person who is oiir type, 
but personal in that our type is our personal taste, not a blind 

This contradiction is fertile ground for self-deception. It 
allows us to persuade ourselves that we value the person of 
another, w’hen, in fact, we only value her (or him) as a sexual 
object, and it allows us to endow her with an imaginary per- 
sonality which has little or no relation to the real one. 

From the personal point of view, on the other hand, sexual 
desire, because of its impersonal and unchanging character, is 
a comic contradiction. The relation between every pair of 
lovers is unique, but in bed they can only do what all mammals 

Comic T rax’esties 

Twelfth Night. The pattern of relationships is as follows: 

1) Viola (Caesario) is wholly in the truth. She knows 
who she is, she knows that the Duke is a man for whom 
she feels personal love, and her passionate image of him 
corresponds to the reality. 

2) The Duke is in the truth in one thing; he knows that 
he feels a personal affection for Caesario (Viola). This is 
made easier for him by his boylike appearance — did he 
look like a mature man, he would fall into a class, the 
class of potential rivals in love. The fact that he feels 
personal affection for the illusory Caesario guarantees 
the authenticity of his love for the real Viola as a person, 
since it cannot be an illusion pro\’oked bv sexual desire. 

His relation to Olivia, on the other hand, is erotic- 
fantastic in one of two ways, and probably in both : either 
his image of her does not correspond to her real nature 
or, if it does correspond, it is fantastic in relation to him- 
self; the kind of wife he really desires is not what he 
imagines. The fact that, though she makes it clear that 
she does not return his passion, he still continues to 
pursue her and by devious strategies, demonstrates that 
he lacks respect for her as a person. 

The Shield of Perseus 

376 ] 

3) Olivia has an erotic-fantastic image of Caesario 
CViola). Since she is able to transfer her image success- 
fully to Caesario’s double, Sebastian, and marry him, we 
must assume that the image of the kind of husband she 
desires is real in relation to herself and only accidentally 
fantastic because Caesario happens to be, not a man, but 
a woman in disguise. 

4) The illusion of Antonio and Sebastian is not con- 
cerned with the erotic relationship, but with the problem 
of body-soul identity. It is a general law that a human 
face is the creation of its owner’s past and that, since two 
persons cannot have the same past, no two faces are alike. 
Identical twins are the exception to this rule. Viola and 
Sebastian are twins, but not identical twins, for one is 
female and the other male; dress them both, however, in 
male or female clothing, and they appear to be identical 

It is impossible to produce Twelfth Night today in an 
ordinary theatre since feminine roles are no longer played, as 
they were in Shakespeare’s time, by boys. It is essential to 
the play that, when Viola appears dressed as a boy, the illu- 
sion should be perfect; if it is obvious to the audience that 
Caesario is really a girl, the play becomes a farce, and a farce 
in bad taste, for any serious emotion is impossible in a farce, 
and some of the characters in Twelfth Night have serious 
emotions. A boy whose voice has not yet broken can, when 
dressed as a girl, produce a perfect illusion of a girl; a young 
woman, dressed as a boy, can never produce a convincing 
illusion of a boy. 

Der Rosenkavalier and Charley’s Aunt. To Baron Lerch- 
enau, the seduction of young chambermaids has become a 
habit, i.e., what was once a combination of desire and per- 
sonal choice has become almost an automatic reflex. A costume 
suggests to him the magic word chamhermaid, and the word 
issues the command Seduce her. The baron, however, is not 
quite a farce character; he knows the difference between a 
pretty girl and an ugly one. The mezzo-soprano who plays 
Octavian should be goM-looking enough to give the illusion 

Notes on the Comic 

[ 377 

of a good-looking young man, when dressed as one. Inthe third 
act, when she is dressed as what she really is, a girl, she will 
be pretty, but her acting the role of a chambermaid must be 
farcical, and give the impression of a bad actor impersonating 
a girl, so that only a man as obsessed by habit as the Baron 
could fail to notice it. 

Charley’s Aunt is pure farce. The fortune-hunting uncle is 
not a slave of habit; he really desires to marry a rich widow, 
but her riches are all he desires; he is totally uninterested in 
sex or in individuals. He has been told that he is going to 
meet a rich widow, he sees widow’s weeds and this is sufficient 
to set him in motion. To the audience, therefore, it must be 
obvious that she is neither female nor elderly, but a young 
undergraduate pretending, with litde success, to be both. 

The Lover and the Citizen 

Marriage is not only a relation between two individuals; 
it is also a social institution, involving social emotions con- 
cerned with class status and prestige among one’s fellows. 
This is not in itself comic; it only becomes comic if social 
emotion is the only motive for a marriage, so that the essential 
motives for marriage, sexual intercourse, procreation and 
personal affection, are lacking. A familiar comic situation is 
that of Don Pasquale. A rich old man plans to marry a young 
girl against her will, for she is in love with a young man of 
her own age; the old man at first looks like succeeding, 
but in the end he is foiled. For this to be comic, the audience 
must be convinced that Don Pasquale does not really feel 
either desire or affection for Norina, that his sole motive is a 
social one, to be able to boast to other old men that he can 
win a young wife when they cannot. He wants the prestige 
of parading her and making others envy him. If he really feels 
either desire or affection, then he will really suffer when his de- 
signs are foiled, and the situation will be either pathetic or 
satiric. In Pickwick Papers, the same situation occurs, only this 
time it is the female sex which has the social motive. Widow 
after widow pursues Weller, the widower, not because she 
wants to be married to him in particular, but because she 
wants the social status of being a married woman. 

The Shield of Perseus 

378 ] 

The Law of the City and the Law of Justice 

Example: FalstalFs speech on Honour (JTenry IV, Part I, 

Act V, Scene II.) 

If the warrior ethic of honor, courage and personal loyalty 
were believed by an Elizabethan or a modem audience to be 
the perfect embodiment of justice, the speech would not be 
sympathetically comic, but a satirical device by which FalstafF 
was held up to ridicule as a coward. If, on the other hand, the 
warrior ethic were totally unjust, if there were no occasions 
on which it was a tme expression of moral duty, the speech 
would be, not comic, but a serious piece of pacifist propaganda. 
The speech has a sympathetically comic eifect for two reasons, 
the circumstances under which it is uttered, and the character 
of the speaker. 

Were the situation one in which the future of the whole 
community is at stake, as on the field of Agincourt, the speech 
would strike an unsympathetic note, but the situation is one 
of civil war, a struggle for power among the feudal nobility 
in which the claims of both sides to be the legitimate rulers 
are fairly equal — Henry IV was once a rebel who deposed 
his King — and a struggle in which their feudal dependents 
are compelled to take part and risk their lives without having 
a real stake in the outcome. Irrespective of the speaker, the 
speech is a comic criticism of the feudal ethic as typified by 
Hotspur. Courage is a personal virtue, but military glory 
for military glory’s sake can be a social evil; unreasonable and 
unjust wars create the paradox that the personal vice of 
cowardice can become a public virtue. 

That it should be FalstafF who utters the speech increases 
its comic effect. FalstafF has a fantastic conception of himself 
as a daredevil who plays highwayman, which, if it were true, 
would require exceptional physical courage. He tries to keep 
up this illusion, but is always breaking down because of his 
moral courage which keeps forcing him to admit that he is 
afraid. Further, though he lacks courage, he exemplifies the 
other side of the warrior ethic, personal loyalty, as contrasted 
with Prince Hal’s Machiavellian manipulation of others. 
When FalstafF is rejected by the man to whom he has pledged 

Notes on the Comic 

[ 379 

his whole devotion, his death may truly he called a death for 
the sake of his wounded honor. 

The Banal 

The human person is a unique singular, analogous to all 
other persons, but identical with none. Banality is an illusion 
of identity for, when people describe their experiences in 
cliche, it is impossible to distinguish the experience of one 
from the en>erience of another. 

The cliche user is comic because the illusion of being 
identical with others is created by his own choice. He is the 
megalomaniac in reverse. Both have fantastic conceptions of 
themselves but, whereas the megalomaniac thinks or himself 
as being somebody else — God, Napoleon, Shakespeare — ^the 
banal man thinks of himself as being everybody else, that is 
to say, nobody in particular. 


Verbal humor involves a violation in a particular instance 
of one of the following general principles of language. 

1) Language is a means of denoting things or thoughts 
by sounds. It is a law of language that any given verbal 
sound alwa)rs means the same thing and only that thing. 

2) Words are man-made things which men use, not per- 
sons with a will and consciousness of their own. Whether 
they make sense or nonsense depends upon whether the 
speaker uses them correctly or incorrecUy. 

3 J Any two or more objects or events which language 
seeks to describe are members, either of separate classes, 
or of the same class, or of overlapping classes. If they 
belong to separate classes, they must be described in 
different terms, and if they belong to the same class they 
must be described in the same terms. If, however, their 
classes overlap, either class can be described metaphori- 
cally in terms which describe the other exactly, e.g., it is 
equally possible to say — the plough swims through the 
soil — ^and — the ship ploughs through the waves. 

The Shield of Perseus 

380 ] 

4) In origin all language is concrete or metaphorical. In 
order to use language to express abstractions, we have 
to ignore its original concrete and metaphorical meanings. 

The first law is violated by (he pun, the exceptional case in 
which one verbal sound has two meanings. 

When I am dead I hope it may be said: 

His sins were scarlet, but his books were read. 

For the pun to be comic, the two meanings must both make 
sense in the context. If all books were bound in black, the 
couplet would not be funny. 

Words which rhyme, that is to say, words which denote differ- 
ent things but are partially similar in sound, are not necessar- 
ily comic. To be comic, the two things they denote must 
either be so incongruous with each omer that one cannot 
imagine a real situation in which a speaker would need to 
bring them together, or so irrelevant to each other, that 
they could only become associated by pure chance. The effect 
of a comic rhyme is as if the words, on the basis of their 
auditory friendship, had taken charge of the situation, as if, 
instead of an event requiring words to describe it, words 
had the power to create an event. Reading the lines 

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven 
Who danced a quadrille with a raven 

one cannot help noticing upon reflection that, had the old 
gentleman lived in Ceylon, he would have had to dance with 
a swan; alternatively, had his dancing partner been a mouse, 
he might have had to reside in Christ Church, Oxford. 

The comic rhyme involves both the first two laws of 
language; the spoonerism only the second. Example: a lec- 
turing geologist introduces a lantern slide with the words: 
"And here, gentlemen, we see a fine example of erotic blacks.” 

So far as the speaker is concerned he has used the language 
incorrectly, yet what he siys makes verbal sense of a Kind. 
Unlike the pun however, where both meanings are relevant, 
in the spoonerism the accidental meaning is nonsense in the 

Notes on the Comic [ 381 

context. Thus, while the comic nature dF the pun should 
be immediately apparent to the hearer, it should take time 
before he realizes what the speaker of the spoonerism in- 
tended to say. A pun is witty and intended; a spoonerism, 
like a comic rhyme, is comic and should appear to be in- 
voluntary. As with the clown, the speaker appears to be 
the slave of language, but in reality is its master. 

Just as there are people who are really clumsy so there 
are incompetent poets who are the slaves of the only rhymes 
they know; the kind of poet caricatured by Shakespeare in 
the play of Pyramus and Thishe: 

Those lily lips, 

This cherry nose. 

These yellow cowslip cheeks. 

Are gone, are gone. 

Lovers make moan; 

His eyes were green as leeks. 

O Sisters Three, 

Ck)me, come to me 
With hands as pale as milk; 

Lay them in gore. 

Since you have shore 
With shears his thread of silk. 

In this case we laugh at the rustic poet, not with him. 

One of the most fruitful of witty devices is a violation 
of the third law, namely, to treat members of overlapping 
classes as if they were members of the same class. For example, 
during a period of riots and social unrest when the mob had 
set hre to hayricks all over the country Sidney Smith wrote 
to his friend, Mrs. Meynell: 

What do you think of all these huminm? and have 
you heard or the new sort of burnings? Ladies' maids 
have taken to setting their mistresses on fire. Two dow- 
agers were burned last week, and large rewards are 
offered. They are inventing little fire-engines for the 
toilet table, worked with lavender water. 

The Shidd of Perseus 

382 1 

The fourth law, which distinguishes between the occasions 
when speech is used to describe concrete things and those 
in whioi it is used for abstract purposes, provide an oppor- 
tunity for wit, as in Wilde’s epigram: 

Twenty years of romance make a woman look like a 
ruin, and twenty years of marriage make her look like 
a public building. 

Ruin has become a "dead” metaphor, that is to say, a word 
which normally can be used as an abstraction, but public 
building is still a concrete description. 

Literary Parody, and Visud Caricature 

Literary parody presupposes a) that every authentic writer 
has a unique perspective on life and b) that his literary 
style accurately expresses that perspective. The trick of the 
parodist is to take die unique style of the author, how he ex- 
presses his unique vision, and make it express utter banal- 
ities; what the parody expresses could be said by anyone. The 
effect is of a reversal in the relation between the author and 
his style. Instead of the style being the creation of the man, 
the man becomes the puppet of the style. It is only possible 
to caricature an author one admires because, in the case 
of an author one dislikes, his own work will seem a better 
parody than one could hope to write oneself. 

Example: As we get older we do not get any younger. 
Seasons return, and to-day I am fifty-five. 

And this time last year I was fifty-four. 

And this time next year I shall be sixty-two. 
And 1 cannot say I should like (to speak for 

To see my time over again — if you can call it 

Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair. 

Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded 

(henhy reed. Chard Whitlow.") 

Notes on the Comic 

1 383 

Every face is a present witness to the fact that its owner 
has a past behind him which might have been otherwise, 
and a future ahead of him in which some possibilities are 
more probable than others. To “read” a face means to guess 
what it might have been and what it still may become. Chil- 
dren, for whom most future possibilities are equally prob- 
able, the dead for whom all possibilities have been reduced 
to zero, and animals who have only one possibility to realize 
and realize it completely, do not have faces which can be 
read, but wear inscrutable masks. A caricatwe of a face admits 
that its owner has had a past, but denies that he has a future. 
He has created his features up to a certain point, but now 
they have taken charge of him so that he can never change; 
he has become a single possibility completely realized. That 
is why, when we go to the zoo, the faces of the animals re- 
mind one of caricatures of human beings. A caricature doesn't 
need to be read; it has no future. 

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want 
to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy 
caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to con- 
sider the possibility of their having a change of heart so 
that we would have to forgive them. 


Flyting seems to have vanished as a studied literary art and 
only to survive in the impromptu exchanges of truckdrivers 
and cabdrivers. The comic effect arises from the contradic- 
tion between the insulting nature of what is said which 
appears to indicate a passionate relation of hostility and agres- 
sion, and the calculated skill of verbal invention which in- 
dicates that the protagonists are not thinking about each 
other but about language and their pleasure in employing 
it inventively. A man who is really passionately angry is speech- 
less and can only express his anger by ph)rsical violence. 
Playful anger is intrinsically comic because, of all emotions, 
anger is the least compatible with play. 


The object of satire is a person who, though in possession 
of his moral faculties, transgresses the moral law heyond 

The Shield of Perseus 

384 1 

the normal call of temptation. The lunatic cannot be an 
object of satire, since he is not morally responsible for his ac- 
tions, and the wicked man cannot be an object because, while 
morally responsible, he lacks the normal faculty of conscience. 
The commonest object of satire is the rogue. The rogue trans- 
gresses the moral law at the expense of others, but he is only 
able to do this because of the vices of his victims; they share 
in his guilt. The wicked man transgresses the moral law 
at the expense of others, but his victims are innocent. Thus 
a black marketeer in sugar can be satirized because the ex- 
istence of such a black market depends upon the greed of 
others for sugar, which is a pleasure but not a necessity; a 
black marketeer in penicillin cannot be satirized because, for 
the sick, it is a necessity and, if they cannot pay his prices, 
they will die. 

After the rogue, the conunonest object of satire is the 
monomaniac. Most men desire money and are not always too 
scrupulous in the means by which they obtain it, but this 
does not make them objects of satire, because their desire 
is tempered by a number of competing interests. A miser 
is satirizable because his desire overrides all desires which 
normal selfishness feels, such as sex or physical comfort. 

The Satirical Strategy 

There is not only a moral human norm, but also a normal 
way of transgressing it. At the moment of yielding to tempta- 
tion, the normal human being has to exercise self-deception 
and rationalization, for in order to yield he requires the 
illusion of acting with a good conscience: after he has 
committed the immoral act, when desire is satisfied, the normal 
human being realizes the nature of his act and feels guilty. 
He who is incapable of realizing the nature of his act is mad, 
and he who, both before, while, and after committing it, is ex- 
actly conscious of what he is doing yet feels no guilt, is wicked. 

The commonest satirical devices therefore, are two: i) To 
present the object of satire as if he or she were mad and 
unaware of what he is doing. 

Notes on the Comic [ 385 

Now Night descending, the proud scene was. o’er. 

But lived in Settle’s numbers, one day more. 


The writing of poetry which, even in the case of the worst 
of poets, is a personal and voluntary act, is presented as if 
it were as impersonal and necessary as the revolution of the 
earth, and the value of the poems so produced which, even 
in a bad poet, varies, is presented as invariable and therefore 
subject to a quantitative measurement like dead matter. 

The satiric effect presupposes that the reader knows that in 
real life Settle was not a certifiable lunatic, for lunacy over- 
whelms a man against his will: Settle is, as it were, a self- 
made lunatic. 

2) To present the object of satire as if he or she were wicked 
and completely conscious of what he is doing without feeling 
any guilt. 

Although, dear Lord, I am a sinner, 

I have done no major crime; 

Now I’ll come to Evening Service 
Whensoever I have time. 

So, Lord, reserve for me a crown. 

And do not let my shares go down. 

(John Betjeman.) 

Again, the satiric effect depends upon our knowing that 
in real life the lady is not vwcked, that, if she were really 
as truthful with herself as she is presented, she could not 
go to Church. 

Satire flourishes in a homogeneous society where satirist 
and audience share the same views as to how normal people 
can be expected to behave, and in times of relative stability 
and contentment, for satire cannot deal with serious evil and 
suffering. In an age like our own, it cannot flourish except 
in intimate circles as an expression of private feuds: in public 
life the evils and sufferings are so serious that satire seems 
trivial and the only possible kind of attack is prophetic de- 


Hort ihr Kindeslieder singen, 
Gleich ists euer eigner Scherz; 
Seht ihr mich im Takte s-pringen, 
Hiipft euch elterlich das Herz. 

FAUST, Part II, Act III 

Most of the literary works with which we are acquainted fall 
into one of two classes, those we have no desire to read a 
second time — sometimes, we were never able to finish them — 
and those we are always happy to reread. There are a few, 
however, which belong to a third class; we do not feel like 
reading one of them very often but, when we are in the 
appropriate mood, it is the only work we feel like reading. 
Nothing else, however good or great, will do instead. 

For me, Byron's Don Juan is such a work. In trying to an- 
alyze why this should be so, I find helpful a distinction which, 
so far as I have been able to discover, can only be made 
in the English language, the distinction between saying. “So- 

Don Juan [ 387 

and-so or such-and-such is boring," and saying, “So-and-so 
or such-and-such is a bore.” 

In English, I believe, the adjective expresses a subjecfive 
judgment; boring always means boring-to-we. For example, if 
I am in the company of golf enthusiasts, I find their con- 
versation boring but they find it fascinating. The noun, on 
the other hand, claims to be an objective, universally valid 
statement; X is a bore is either true or false. 

Applied to works of art or to artists, the distinction makes 
four judgments possible. 

1) Not (or seldom) boring but a bore. Examples: The 
last quartets of Beethoven, the Sistine frescoes of 
Michelangelo, the novels of Dostoievski. 

2) Sometimes boring but not a bore. Verdi, Degas, 

3) Not boring and not a bore. Rossini, the drawings 
of Thurber, P. G. Wodehouse. 

4) Boring and a bore. Works to which one cannot attend. 

It would be rude to give names. 

Perhaps the principle of the distinction can be made clearer 
by the following definitions: 

A. The absolutely boring but absolutely not a bore: 
the time of day. 

B. The absolutely not boring but absolute bore: God. 

Don Juan is sometimes boring but pre-eminently an example 
of a long poem which is not a bore. To enjoy it fully, the 
reader must be in a mood of distaste for everything which 
is to any degree a bore, that is, for all forms of passionate 
attachment, whether to persons, things, actions or beliefs. 

TTiis is not a mood in which one can enjoy satire, for 
satire, however entertaining, has its origin in passion, in anger 
at what is the case, desire to change what is the case into what 
ought to be the case, and belief that the change is humanly 
possible. The Dunciad, for example, presupposes that the Goa- 
dess of Dullness is a serious enemy of civilization, that it is 
the duty of all good citizens to rally to the defense of die 

The Shield of Perseus 

388 ] 

City against her servants, and that the cause of Common- 
sense is not hopeless. 

In defending his poem against the charge of immorality, 
Byron said on one occasion: “Don Juan will be known by- 
and-by for what it is intended — a Satire on abuses of the present 
state of Society”: but he was not telling the truth. The poem, 
of course, contains satirical passages. When Byron attacks 
Wordsworth, Southey or Wellington, he is certainly hoping 
to deprive them of readers and admirers and behind his 
description of the siege of Ismail lies a hope that love of 
military glory and adulation of the warrior are not incurable 
defects in human nature but evils against which the con- 
science of mankind can, in the long run, be persuaded to 

But, as a whole, Don Juan is not a satire but a comedy, and 
Byron knew it, for in a franker mood he wrote to Murray: 

I have no plan — I had no plan; but I had or have mate- 
rials; though if, like Tony Lumpkin, I am to he “snubbed 
so when I am in spirits,” the poem will be naught and 
the poet turn serious again . . . You are too earnest and 
eager about a work which was never intended to be 
serious. Do you suppose that I could have any intention 
but to giggle and make giggle. 

Satire and comedy both make use of the comic contradiction, 
but their aims are different. Satire would arouse in readers 
the desire to act so that the contradictions disappear; comedy 
would persuade them to accept the contradictions with good 
humor as facts of life against which it is useless to rebel. 

Poor Julia’s heart was in an awkward state. 

She felt it going and resolved to make 
The noblest efforts for herself and mate. 

For honour’s, pride’s, religion’s, virtue’s sake; 

Her resolutions were most truly great; 

And almost might have made a Tarquin quake; 

She prayed the Virgin Mary for her grace 
As being the best judge in a lady’s case. 

Don Juan 

I 389 

She vow’d she never would see Juan more 
And next day paid a visit to his mother; 

And looked extremely at the opening door, 

Which by the Virgin’s grace, let in another; 
Grateful she was, and yet a little sore — 

Again it opens — it can be no other. 

’Tis surely Juan now — No! Fm afraid 
That night the Virgin was no longer prayed. 

Julia is presented, neither as a pious hypocrite nor as a slut, 
but as a young woman, married to an older man she does 
not like, tempted to commit adultery with an attractive boy. 
The conflict between her conscience and her desire is per- 
fectly genuine. Byron is not saying that it is silly of Julia to 
pray because there is no God, or that marriage is an unjust 
institution which should be abolished in favor of free love. 
The comedy lies in the fact that the voice of conscience and 
the voice of desire can both be expressed in the verbal form of 
a prayer, so that, while Julia’s conscience is praying to the 
Madonna, her heart is praying to Aphrodite. Byron does not 
pass judgment on this; he simply states that human nature 
is like that and implies, perhaps, that, in his experience, if 
Aphrodite has opportunity on her side, the Madonna is seldom 
victorious, so that, in sexual matters, we ought to be tolerant 
of human frailty. 

Byron’s choice of the word giggle rather than laugh to describe 
his comic intention deserves consideration. 

All comic situations show a contradiction between some 
general or universal principle and an individual or particular 
person or event. In the case of the situation at which we 
giggle, the general principles are two: 

1) The sphere of the sacred and the sphere of the 

profane are mutually exclusive. 

2) The sacred is that at which we do not laugh. 

Now a situation arises in which the profane intrudes upon 
the sacred but without annulling it. If the sacred were an- 

The Shield of Perseus 

390 1 

nulled, we should laugh outright, but the sacred is still felt 
to he present, so that a conflict ensues between the desire to 
laugh and the feeling that laughter is inappropriate. A per- 
son to whom the distinction between the sacred and the pro- 
fane had no meaning could never giggle. 

If we giggle at Julia’s prayer, it is because we have been 
brought up in a culture which makes a distinction between 
sacred and profane love. Similarly, we miss the comic point 
if we read the following lines as a satire on Christian dogma. 

as I suffer from the shocks 
of illness, I grow much more orthodox. 

The first attack at once proved the Divinity; 

(But that I never doubted, nor the Devil); 

The next, the Virgin’s mystical Virginity; 

The third, the usual Origin of Evil; 

'The fourth at once established the whole Trinity 

On so uncontrovertible a level. 

That I devoutly wished the three were four 
On purpose to believe so much the more. 

If these lines were satirical, they would imply that all people 
in good health are atheists. But what Byron says is that when 
people are well, they tend to be frivolous and forget all those 
questions about the meaning of life which are of sacred im- 
portance to everybody, including atheists, and that when 
they are ill, they can think of nothing else. One could 
imagine a similar verse by Shelley (if he had had any sense 
of humor) in which he would say: "The iller I get, the more 
certain I become that there is no God.’’ Shelley, as a matter 
of fact, complained that he was powerless "to eradicate from 
his friend’s great mind the delusions of Christianity which 
in spite of his reason seem perpetually to recur and to lie 
in ambush for his hours of sickness and distress,’’ and, had 
Bryon lived longer, the prophecy Sir Walter Scott made in 
1815 might well have come true. 

I remember saying to him that I really thought that, if 
he lived a few years longer, he would alter his senti- 

ments. He answered rather sharply. “I suppose you are 
one of those who prophesy that I will turn Methodist.” 
I replied — “No. I don’t expect your conversion to be of 
such an ordinary kind. 1 would rather look to see you 
retreat upon the Catholic faith and distinguish yourself 
by the austerity of your penances.” 

The terms “sacred” and “profane” can be used relatively as 
well as absolutely. Thus, in a culture that puts a spiritual 
value upon love between the sexes, such a love, however 
physical, will seem sacred in comparison with physical hunger. 
When the shipwrecked Juan wakes and sees Haid^ bending 
over him, he sees she is beautiful and is thrilled by her voice, 
but the first thing he longs for is not her love but a beef- 

The sacred can be evil as well as good. In our culture it 
is considered normal (the normal is always profane) for 
men to be carnivorous, and vegetarians are looked upon as 

Although his anatomical construction 
Bears vegetables in a grumbling way. 

Your laboring people think beyond all question 
Beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion. 

Cannibalism, on the other hand, is a crime which is regarded 
with sacred horror. The survivors from the shipwreck in Canto 
II are not only starving but also have a craving for meat to 
which their upbringing has conditioned them. Unfortunately, 
the only kind of meat available is human. One can imagine 
a group of men in similar circumstances who would not 
have become cannibals because they had been brought up 
in a vegetarian culture and were unaware that human beings 
could eat meat. The men in Byron’s poem pay with their 
lives for their act, not because it is a sacred crime but for 
the profane reason that their new diet proves indigestible. 

By night chilled, by day scorched, there one by one 
They perished until withered to a few, 

But chiefly by a species of self-slaughter 
In washing down Pedrillo with salt water. 

The Shield of Perseus 

392 1 

It is the silly mistake of drinking salt water, not the sacred 
crime of consuming a clergyman, that brings retribution. 

Most readers will probably agree that the least interesting 
figure in Don Juan is its official hero, and his passivity is 
all the more surprising when one recalls the legendary monster 
of depravity after whom he is named. The Don Juan of the 
myth is not promiscuous by nature but by will; seduction is 
his vocation. Since the slightest trace of affection will turn 
a number on his list of victims into a name, his choice of 
vocation requires the absolute renunciation of love. It is an 
essential element in the legend, therefore, that Don Juan 
be, not a sinner out of wetness, but a defiant atheist, the 
demonic counter-image of the ascetic saint who renounces all 
personal preference for one neighbor to another in order that 
he may show Christian charity to all alike. 

When he chose the name Don Juan for his hero, Byron 
was well aware of the associations it would carry for the public, 
and he was also aware that he himself was believed by many 
to be the heartless seducer and atheist of the legend. His 
poem is, among other things, a self-defense. He is saying 
to his accusers, as it were; “The Don Juan of the legend does 
not exist. I will show you what the sort of man who gets the 
reputation for being a Don Juan is really like.” 

Byron’s hero is not even particularly promiscuous. In the 
course of two years he makes love with five women, a poor 
showing in comparison with the 1003 Spanish ladies of 
Leporello’s Catalogue aria, or even with Byron’s own “200 
odd Venetian pieces.” Furthermore, he seduces none of them. 
In three cases he is seduced — by Julia, Catherine, the Duch- 
ess of Fitz-Fulk — and in the other two, circumstances outside 
his control bring him together with Haid6e and Dudil, and 
no persuasion on his part is needed. Then, though he can- 
not quite play Tristan to her Isolde and commit suicide when 
he is parted from Haid^e, he has been genuinely in love 
with her. 

Far from being a defiant rebel against the laws of God 
and man, his most conspicuous trait is his gift for social 

Don Juan 

i 393 

conformity. I cannot understand those critics who tiave seen 
in him a kind of Rousseau child of Nature. Whenever chance 
takes him, to a pirate’s lair, a harem in Mohammedan Con- 
stantinople, a court in Greek Orthodox Russia, a country 
house in Protestant England, he immediately adapts himself 
and is accepted as an agreeable fellow. Had Byron con- 
tinued the poem as he planned and taken Juan to Italy 
to be a cavcdiere servente and to Germany to be a solemn 
Werther-faced man, one has no doubt that he would have 
continued to play the roles assigned to him with tact and 
aplomb. In some respects Juan resembles the Baudelairian 
dandy but he lacks the air of insolent superiority which 
Baudelaire considered essential to the true dandy; he would 
never, one feels, say anything outrageous or insulting. Aside 
from the stylistic impossibility of ending a comic poem on a 
serious note, it is impossible to imagine Juan, a man without 
enemies, ending on the guillotine, as apparently Byron was 
considering doing with him. 

When one compares Don Juan with what we know of his 
creator, he seems to be a daydream of what Byron would have 
liked to be himself. Physically he is unblemished and one 
cannot imagine him having to diet to keep his figure; socially, 
he is always at his ease and his behavior in perfect taste. Had 
Juan set out for Greece, he would not have had made for him- 
self two Homeric helmets with overtowering plumes nor had 
engraved on his coat of arms the motto Crede Don Juan. 

Byron, though very conscious of his rank, never felt fully at 
ease in the company of his social equals (Shelley was too odd 
to count). Even when he was the social lion of London, Lord 
Holland observed: 

It was not from his birth that Lord Byron had taken the 
station he held in society for, till his talents were known, 
he was, in spite of his birth, in anything but good society 
and hut for his talents would never, perhaps, have been 
in any better. 

And Byron himself confessed to Lady Blessington: 

The Shield of Perseus 

394 1 

I am so little fastidious in the selection or rather want of 
selection of associates, that the most stupid men satisfy 
me as well, nay, perhaps, better than the most brilliant. 
The effort of letting myself down to them costs me noth- 
ing, though my pride is hurt that they do not seem more 
sensible of the condescension. 

Juan, though by birth a Spaniard and a Catholic and there- 
fore an outsider from an Englishman's point of view, is the 
perfect embodiment of the very English ideal of succeeding 
at anything he does without appearing to be ambitious of suc- 

Characters which are daydream projections of their authors 
are seldom very interesting and, had Byron written Don Juan 
as a straightforward narrative poem in die style of The Corsair 
or Lara, it would probably have been unreadable. Fortunately, 
he had discovered a genre of poetry which allows the author 
to enter the story he is telling. Juan is only a convenience: the 
real hero of the poem is Byron himself. 

Byron’s poetry is the most striking example I know in literary 
history of the creative role which poetic form can play. If 
William Stewart Rose had arrived in Venice in September 
1817 with nothing for him but magnesia and red tooth powder, 
Byron would probably today be considered a very minor poet. 
He knew Italian well, he had read Casti’s Novelle Galanti and 
loved them, but he did not realize the poetic possibilities of 
the mock-heroic ottava-rima until he read Frere’s The Monks 
and the Giants. 

Take away the poems he wrote in this style and meter, 
Beppo, The Vision of Judgment, Don Juan, and what is left 
of lasting value? A few lyrics, though none of them is as good 
as the best of Moore’s, two adequate satires though inferior to 
Dryden or Pope, “Darkness,” a fine piece of blank verse marred 
by some false sentiment, a few charming occasional pieces, 
half a dozen stanzas from Childe Harold, half a dozen lines 
from Cain, and that is all. Given his production up till that 
date, he showed better judgment than his readers when he 
wrote to Moore in 1817: 

If I live ten years longer, you will see, however, tiiat all 
is not over with me — ^1 don’t mean in litemture, for that is 
nothing: and it may seem odd 
think it is my vocation. 

Soon afterwards, he read Frere: as he had foretold, it was not 
all over with him but, as he had not foreseen, his vocation 
was to be literature. The authentic poet was at last released. 

So long as Byron tried to write Poetry with a capital P, to 
express deep emotions and profound thoughts, his work de- 
served that epithet he most dreaded, wna seccatura. As a thinker 
he was, as G^the perceived, childish, and he possessed neither 
the imaginative vision — ^he could never invent anything, only 
remember — nor the verbal sensibility such poetry demands. 
Lady Byron, of all people, put her finger on his great defect 
as a serious poet. 

He is the absolute monarch of words, and uses them as 
Bonaparte did lives, for conquest without regard to their 
intrinsic value. 

The artistic failure of Childe Harold is due in large measure to 
Byron's disastrous choice of the Spenserian stanza. At the time, 
he had only read a few verses of The Faerie Queene and when, 
later, Leign Hunt tried to make him read the whole of it, one 
is not surprised to learn that he hated the poem. Nothing could 
be further removed from Byron’s cast or mind than its slow, 
almost timeless, visionary quality. 

His attempt to write satirical heroic couplets were less un- 
successful but, aside from the impossibility of equaling Dryden 
and Pope in their medium, Byron was really a comedian, not 
a satirist. Funny things can be said in heroic couplets, but the 
heroic couplet as a form is not comic, that is to say, it does not 
itself make what it says funny. 

Before Bepfo, the authentic Byron emerges only in light 
occasional verse such as “Lines to a Lady who appointed a 
night in December to meet him in the garden.’’ 

Why should you weep hke Lydia Languish 
And fret with self-created anguish 

enough to say 1 do not 

The Skidd of Perseus 

396 ] 

Or doom the lover you have chosen 
On winter nights to sigh half-frozen; 

In leafless shades to sue for pardon, 

Only because the scene’s a garden? 

For gardens seem, by one consent, 

Since Shakespeare set the precedent. 

Since Julia first declared her passion. 

To form the place of assignation. 

Oh, would some modem muse inspire 
And seat her by a sea-coal fire; 

Or had the bard at Christmas written 
And laid the scene of love int Britain, 

He, surely, in commiseration 

Had changed the place of declaration. 

In Italy I’ve no objection. 

Warm nights are proper for reflection: 

But here our climate is so rigid 
That love itself is rather frigid : 

Think on our chilly situation. 

And curb this rage for imitation. 

In this, a very early poem, one can note already the speed 
and the use of feminine rhymes which were to become Byron’s 
forte. Feminine rhymes are as possible in a five-foot line as in 
a four-foot but, at this date, the tune of the Pope couplet was 
still too much in his ear to allow him to use them. There are 
only three couplets with feminine rhymes in English Bards 
and Scotch Reviewers and only one in Hints front Horace. 

Frere was not a great poet, but his perception of the comic 
possibilities of an exact imitation in English of Italian ottava- 
rima was a stroke of genius. Italian is a polysyllabic language, 
most of its words end on an unaccented syllable and rhymes 
are very common. Italian ottava-rima, therefore, is usually 
hendecasyllabic with feminine rhymes and, because three 
rhymes can be found without any effort, it became a maid-of- 
all-work stanza which would fit any subject. An Italian poet 
could use it for comic or satirical purposes, but he could also 

Don Juan 

[ 397 

be serious and pathetic in it. There is nothing comic, for ex- 
ample, about this stanza from Gerusdemme Liberata. 

Lei net fartir, lei nel tomar del sole 
Chictma con voce mesta e -prega e flora; 

Come usignol cui villan duro invole 
Dcd nido i figli non pennuti ancora 
Che in miserabil canto afflite e sole 
Piange le notte, e n’empie, hoschi e I'ora. 

Alpn col nuovo di rinchiude alquanto 
I lumi; e il sonno in lor serpe fra il pianto. 

When English poets first copied the stanza, they instinctively 
shortened the lines to decasyllabics with masculine rhymes. 

All suddenly dismaid, and hartless quite 
He fled abacke and catching hastie holde 
Of a young alder hard behinde him pight. 

It rent, and streight aboute him gan beholde 
What God or Fortune would assist his might. 

But whether God or Fortune made him bold 
It’s hard to read; yet hardie will he had 
To overcome, that made him less adrad. 

(“Vergil’s Gnat.”) 

The frequent monosyllables, the abruptness of the line end- 
ings and the absence of elision completely alter the movement. 
Further, because of the paucity of rhymes in English, it is al- 
most impossible to write a poem of any length in this stanza 
without either using banal rhymes or padding the line in order 
to get a rhyme. If, from Chaucer to Sac^lle, it was not 
ottava-rima but rhyme-royal which was the staple vehicle for 
a long poem, one reason, at least, was that rhyme-royal calls 
for only one rhyme triplet, not two. So far as I know, the first 
English poet to combine ottava-rima with the high style was 
Yeats who, in his later years, wrote many of his finest poems 
in it. He gets round the rhyming problem by a liberal use of 
half-rhymes and by ending lines with words which are almost 
dactyls, so that the rhyming syllable is only lighdy ac- 

398 J 

The Shield of Perseus 

cented. For example, in the opening stanza of "Nineteen 
Hundred and Nineteen,” only two of the lines rhyme exacdy. 

Many ingenious lovely things are gone 
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude. 

Protected from the circle of the moon 
That pitches common things about. There stood 
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone 
An ancient image made of olive wood — 

And gone are Phidias' famous ivories 
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees. 

Frere was the first fully to realize (though, as W. P. Ker has 
pointed out, there are anticipations in Gay’s “Mr. Pope’s 
Welcome from Greece”) that the very qualities of the stanza 
which make it an unsuitable vehicle for serious poetry make 
it an ideal one for comic verse since in English, unlike Italian, 
the majority of double or triple rhymes are comic. 

Our association of the word romantic with the magical and 
dreamlike is so strong that we are apt to forget that the literary 
period so classified is also a great age for comic poetry. The 
comic verse of poets like Canning, Frere, Hood, Praed, Bar- 
ham, and Lear was a new departure in English poetry, and 
not least in its exploitation of comic rhyme. Indeed, before 
them, the only poets I can think of who used it intentionally 
and frequently were Skelton and Samuel Butler. 

The very qualities of English ottava-rima which force a 
serious poet to resort to banal rhymes and padding are a stimu- 
lus to the comic imagination, leading to the discovery of comic 
rhymes and providing opportunities for the interpolated com- 
ment and conversational aside, and Byron developed this 
deliberate looseness of manner to the full. 

An Arab horse, a stately stag, a barb 
New broke, a camelopard, a gazelle. 

No— none of these will do— and then their garb! 
Their veil and petticoat — ^Alas! to dwell 

Upon such things would very near absorb 
A canto — then their feet and ankles — well, 

Thank heaven I’ve got no metaphor quite read 5 r; 

(And so, my sober Muse — come, let’s be steady.) 

He also exploited to the full the structural advantages of the 
stanza. As a unit, eight lines give space enough to describe a 
single event or elaborate on a single idea without having to run 
on to the next stanza. If, on the other hand, what the poet has 
to say requires several short sentences, the arrangement of the 
rhymes allows him to pause at any point he likes without the 
stanza breaking up into fragments, for his separate statements 
will always be linked by a rhyme. The stanza divides by rhyme 
into a group of six lines followed by a coda of two; the poet 
can either observe this division and use the couplet as an 
epigrammatic comment on the first part, or he can take seven 
lines for his theme and use the final one as a punch line. 
Gulbeyaz, for the first time in her days. 

Was much embarrassed, never having met 
In all her life with aught save prayers and praise; 

And as she also risked her life to get 
Him whom she meant to tutor in love’s ways 
Into a comfortable t4te-a-t4te. 

To lose the hour would make her quite a martyr. 

And they had-wasted now about a quarter. 

Her form had all the softness of her sex. 

Her features all the sweetness of the devil. 

When he put on the cherub to perplex 

Eve, and paved (God knows what) the road to evil; 

The sun himself was scarce more free from specks 
TTian she from aught at which the eye could cavil; 

Yet, somehow, there was something somewhere wanting. 

As if she rather ordered than was granting. 

What had been Byron’s defect as a serious poet, his lack of 
reverence for words, was a virtue for the comic poet. Serious 
poetry requires that the poet treat words as if they were per- 
sons, but comic poetiy demands that he treat them as things 
and few, if any, English poets have rivaled Byron’s ability to 
put words through the hoops. 

The Shield of Perseus 

400 ] 

Needless to say, the skill of the comic poet, like that of the 
lion tamer or the clown, takes hard work to perfect. Byron 
chose to give others the impression that he dashed off his 
poetry, like a gentleman, without effort, but the publication 
of the Variorum edition of Don Juan demonstrates that, al- 
though he wrote with facility, he took a great deal more 
pains than he pretended. The editors, with an industrious 
devotion which is as admirable as it is, to me, incredible, have 
provided statistical tables. Thus, 87 out of the 172 stanzas in 
Canto I show revisions in four or more lines, and 1 23 revisions 
in the concluding couplet. A few examples will suffice. 

Canto I, St. 103. 

First draft: 

They are a sort of post-house, where the Fates 
Change horses every hour from night till noon; 

Then spur away with empires and oe’r states. 

Leaving no vestige but a bare chronology. 

Except the hopes derived from true theology. 

First Revision: 

Except the promises derived from true theology. 

Final version: 

They are a sort of post-house where the Fates 
Change horses, making history change its tune; 

Then spur away o’er empires and o’er states. 

Leaving at last not much besides chronology 
Excepting the post-obits of theology. 

Canto IX, St. 33. 

First draft: 

O ye who build up statues all defiled 

With gore, like Nadir Shah, that costive Sophy, 

Who after leaving Hindostan a wild. 

And leaving Asia scarce a cup of coffee. 

To soothe his woes withal, went mad and was 
Killed because what he swallowed would not pass. 

Don Juan 

[ 40* 

Final version: 

O! ye who build up monuments defiled 
With gore, like Nadir Shah, that costive Sophy 
Who, after leaving Hindostan a wild, 

And scarce to the Mogul a cup of coffee, 

To soothe his woes withal, was slain — the sinner! 

Because he could no more digest his dinner. 

Canto XI, st. 60. 

First version: 

Tis strange the mind should let such phrases quell its 
Chief impulse with a few frail paper pellets. 

Second Version: 

Tis strange the mind, that all celestial Particle, 

Should let itself be put out by an Article. 

Final Version: 

Tis strange the mind, that very fiery Particle, 

Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article. 

One should be wary, when comparing an author’s various 
productions, of saying: this piece is an expression of the real 
man and that piece is not — for nobody, not even the subject 
himself, can be certain who he is. All we can say is that this 
piece is the expression of a person who might possibly exist 
but nobody could possibly exist of whom that piece would be 
the expression. 

There have been poets — Keats is the most striking example 
— whose letters and poems are so different from each other 
that they might have been written by two different people, 
and yet both seem equally authentic. But, with Byron, this is 
not the case. From the beginning, his letters seem authentic 
but, before Beppo, very litde of his poetry; and the more 
closely his poetic •persona comes to resemble the epistolary 
persona of his letters to his male friends — his love letters are 
another matter — the more authentic his poetry seems. 

So Scrope is gone — down diddled — as Doug K writes it, 
the said Doug being like the man who, when he lost a 

The Shield of Perseus 

402 ] 

friend, went down to St. James Coffee House and took 
a new one; ‘the best of men’. Gone to Bruges where he 
will get tipsy with Dutch beer and shoot himself the first 
foggy morning. 

Reading this letter to Hobhouse, one immediately recognizes 
its likeness to Don Juan and its unlikeness to Manfred and 
one feels that, while the letter and Don Juan have been 
written by someone-in-particular, Manfred must have been 
written, as it were, by a committee. 

If one can say that the authentic poet in Byron is Byron the 
Friend, it is worth asking what are the typical characteristics 
of friendship. (I am thinking, of course, of friendship between 
men. To me, as to all men, the nature of friendship between 
women remains a mystery, which is probably a wise provision 
of nature. If we ever discovered what women say to each other 
when we are not there, our male vanity might receive such a 
shock that the human race would die out.) 

The basis of friendship is similarity: it is only possible be- 
tween persons who regard each other as equals and who have 
some interests and tastes in common, so that they can share 
each other's experiences. We can speak of a false friendship 
but not of an unreciprocated one. In this, friendship differs 
from sexual love which is based on difference and is all too 
often unreciprocated. Further, friendship is a nonexclusive, 
nonpossessive relationship; we can speak of having friends in 
common, while we cannot speak of having lovers, husbands or 
wives in common. Between two friends, therefore, there is an 
indifference towards, even an impatience with, those areas of 
human experience which they cannot share with each other, 
religious experiences, for example, which are unsharable with 
anybody, and feelings of passionate devotion which can be 
shared, if at all, only with the person for whom they are felt. 
Andti Gide was being unduly cynical, perhaps, when he de- 
fined a friend as someone with whom one does something dis- 
graceful; it is true, however, that a vice in common can be 
the ground of a friendship but not a virtue in common. X and 
Y may be friends because they are both drunkards or woman- 

Don Juan 

i 403 

izers but, if they are both sober and chaste, th^ are fpends for 
some other reason. 

The experiences which friends can share range from the 
grossest to the most subde and refined, but nearly all of them 
TClong to the category of the Amusing. No lover worries about 
boring his beloved; if she loves him, she cannot be bored and 
if she doesn't love him, he is too unhappy to care if she is. But 
between two friends, their first concern is not to bore each 
other. If they are persons of heart and imagination, they will 
take it for granted that the other has beliefs and feelings 
which he takes seriously and problems of his own which cause 
him suffering and sorrow, but in conversation they will avoid 
discussing them or, if they do discuss them, they will avoid 
the earnest note. One laughs with a friend; one does not 
weep with him (though one may weep for him). 

Most poetry is the utterance of a man in some state of 
passion, love, joy, grief, rage, etc., and no doubt this is as it 
should be. But no man is perpetually in a passion and those 
states in which he is amused and amusing, detached and ir- 
reverent, if less important, are no less human. If there were 
no poets who, like Byron, express these states. Poetry would 
lack something. 

An authentic and original work nearly always shocks its 
first readers and Byron's “new manner” was no exception. 

Beppo is just imported but not perused. The greater 
the levity of Lord Byron's Compositions, the more I 
imagine him to suffer from the turbid state of his mind. 

(Lady Byron.) 

Frere particularly observed that the world had now 
given up the foolish notion that you were to be identified 
with your sombre heroes, and had acknowledged with 
what great success and good keeping you had por- 
trayed a grand imaginary being. But the same admiration 
cannot be bestowed upon, and will not be due to the Rake 
Juan. ... All the idle stories about your Venetian life 
will be more than confirmed. (Hobhouse.) 

The Shield of Perseus 

404 ] 

Dear Adorable Lord Byron, don’t make a more coarse 
old libertine of yourself . . . When you don’t feel quite 
up to a spirit of benevolence . . . throw away your pen, 
my love, and take a litde calomel. (Hariette Wilson, who 
shortly afterwards offered to come and pimp for him.) 

1 would rather have the fame of Childe Harold for 

(Teresa Guiccoli.) 

Some of his friends, among them Hobhouse, admired 
parts of Don Juan, but the only person who seems to have 
realized how utterly different in kind it was from all Byron’s 
previous work was John Lockhart: 

Stick to Don Juan; it is the only sincere thing you have 
ever written . . . out of all sight the best of your works; 
it is by far the most spirited, the most straightforward, the 
most interesting, and the most poetical . . . the great 
charm of its st^e, is that it is not much like the style of 
any other poem in the world. 

Byron was not normally given to praising his own work, 
but of Don Juan he was openly proud: 

Of the fate of the “pome” I am quite uncertain, and do 
not anticipate much brilliancy from your silence. But I 
do not care. I am as sure as the Archbishop of Granada 
that I never wrote better, and I wish you all better 

As to “Don Juan,” confess, confess — you dog be candid — 
that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing — it may 
be bawdy but is it not good English? It may be profli- 
gate, but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any 
man have written it who has not lived in the world? — 
and tooled in a post-chaise? — ^in a hackney coach? — in a 
gondola? — against a wall? — ^in a court carriage? — in a vis- 
a-vis? — on a table? — and under it? 

Don ]tum 

[ 405 

There is an element of swank in this desciipticm; for the 
poem is far less bawdy than he makes it sound. Only a small 
part of the experience upon which Byron drew in writii^ it 
was amorous. 

What Byron means by life — ^which explains why he could 
never appreciate Wordsworth or Keats — is the motion of life, 
the ‘passage of events and thoughts. His visual descriptions of 
scenery or architecture are not particularly vivid, nor are his 
portrayal of states of mind particularly profound, but at the 
description of things in motion or the way in which the mind 
wanders from one thought to another he is a great master. 

Unlike most poets, he must be read very rapidly as if the 
words were single frames in a movie film; stop on a word or a 
line and the poetry vanishes — the feeling seems superficial, 
the rhyme forced, the grammar all over the place — ^but read at 
the proper pace, it gives a conviction of watching the real 
thing which many profounder writers fail to inspire for, 
though motion is not the only characteristic of life, it is an es- 
sential one. 

If Byron was sometimes slipshod in his handling of the 
language, he was a stickler for factual accuracy; "I don’t care 
one lump of sugar,” he once wrote, “for my poetry; but for my 
costume, and my correctness ... I will combat lustily,” and, 
on another occasion, “I hate things all fiction . . . There should 
always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric, 
and pure invention is but the talent of a liar.” He was furious 
when the poem “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem” was attributed to 
him: “How the devil should I write about Jerusalem, never 
having been yet there?” And he pounced, with justice, on 
Wordsworth’s lines about Greece: 

Rivers, fertile plains, and sounding shores. 

Under a cope of variegated sky. 

'The rivers are dry half the year, the plains are barren, 
and the shores as “still” and “tideless” as the Mediter- 
ranean can make them; the sky is anything but varie- 
gated, being for months and months “darkly, deeply, 
beautifuly blue.” 

The Shield of Perseus 

406 ] 

The material of his poems is always drawn from events 
that actually happened, either to himself or to people he knew, 
and he took great trouble to get his technical facts, such as 
sea terms, correct. 

When he stopped work on Don Juan, he had by no means 
exhausted his experience. Reading through Professor Mar- 
chand’s recent biography, one comes across story after story 
that seems a natural for the poem; Caroline Lamb, for ex- 
ample, surrounded by little girls in white, burning effigies of 
Byron’s pictures and casting into the flames copies of his 
letters because she could not bear to part with the originals; 
Byron himself, at Shelley’s cremation, getting acutely sun- 
burned, and Teresa preserving a piece of skin when he 
peeled; Teresa forbidding an amateur performance of Othello 
because she couldn’t speak English and wasn’t going to have 
anybody else play De^emona. And, if B5n:on’s shade is still 
interested in writing, there are plenty of posthumous incidents. 
The Greeks stole his lungs as a relic and then lost them; at his 
funeral, noble carriage after noble carriage lumbered by, all 
empty, because the aristocracy felt they must show some re- 
spect to a fellow-peer but did not dare seem to show approval 
of his politics or his private life; Fletcher, his valet, started a 
macaroni factory and failed; Teresa married a French marquis 
who used to introduce her as "La Marquise de Boissy, ma 
femme, ancienne mcntresse de Byron” and after his death 
maitresse devoted herself to spiritualism, talking with the 
spirits of both Byron and her first husband. What stanzas they 
could all provide! How suitable, too, for a that-there poet that 
the room in which his "Memoirs’’ were burned should now be 
called the Byron Room, how perfect the scene John Buchan 
describes of himself and Henry James setting down to examine 
the archives of Lady Lovelace: 

. . . during a summer weekend, Henry James and I waded 
through masses of ancient indecency, and duly wrote an 
opinion . , . My colleague never turned a hair. His only 
words for some special vileness were '“singular” — “most 
curious” — “nauseating, perhaps, but how quite inexpress- 
ibly significant.” 


To become mature is to recover that sense of 
seriousness which one had as a child at flay- 


All characters who are products of the mythopoeic imagination 
are instantaneously recognizable by the fact that their exist- 
ence is not defined by their social and historical context; trans- 
fer them to another society or another age and their characters 
and behavior will remain unchanged. In consequence, once 
they have been created, they cease to be their author's char- 
acters and become the reader’s; he can continue their story 
for himself. 

Anna Karenina is not such a character for the reader can- 
not imagine her apart from the particular milieu in which 
Tolstoi places her or the particular history of her life which 
he records; Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is: every 

The Shield of Perseus 

408 ] 

reader, according to his fancy, can imagine adventures for 
him which Conan Doyle forgot, as it were, to tell us. 

Tolstoi was a very great novelist, Conan Doyle a very 
minor one, yet it is the minor not the major writer who 
possesses the mythopoeic gift. The mythopoeic imagination is 
only accidentally related, it would seem, to the talent for 
literary expression; in Cervantes' Don Quixote they are found 
together, in Rider Haggard's She literary talent is largely 
absent. Indeed, few of the writers whom we call great have 
created mythical characters. In Shakespeare's plays we find 
five, Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Falstaff and Hamlet, and Ham- 
let is a myth for actors only; the proof that, for actors, he is 
a myth is that all of them without exception, irrespective of 
age, build, or even sex, wish to play the part. 

After Cervantes, as a writer who combines literary talent 
and a mythopoeic imagination, comes Dickens and, of his 
many mythical creations, Mr. Pickwick is one of the most 
memorable. Though the appeal of mythical characters trans- 
cends all highbrow-lowbrow frontiers of taste, it is not un- 
limited; every such character is symbolic of some important 
and perpetual human concern, but a reader must have ex- 
perienced this concern, even if he cannot define it to himself, 
before the character can appeal to him. Judging by my own 
experience, I would say that Pickwick Paj/ers is emphatically 
not a book for children and the reflections which follow are 
the result of my asking myself: “Why is it that I now read 
with such delight a book which, when I was given it to read 
as a boy, I found so boring, although it apparently contains 
nothing which is too grown-up' for a twelve-year-oldt*” The 
conclusion I have come to is that the real theme of Pickwick 
Papers — I am not saying Dickens was consciously aware of it 
and, indeed, I am pretty certain he was not — is the Fall of 
Man. It is the story of a man who is innocent, that is to say, 
who has not eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good 
and Evil and is, therefore, living in Eden. He then eats 
of the Tree, that is to say, he becomes conscious of the reality 
of Evil but, instead of falling from innocence into sin — this 
is what makes him a mythical character — ^he changes from 
an innocent child into an innocent adult who no longer lives 

Din^y DeU & The Fleet 

[ 409 

in an imaginary Eden of his own but in the real arid fallen 

If my conclusion is correct, it explains why Pickwick Papers 
said nothing to me as a boy because, though no boy is inno- 
cent, he has no clear notion of innocence, nor does he know 
that to be no longer innocent, but to wish that one were, is 
part of the definition of an adult. 

However he accounts for it, every adult knows that he 
lives in a world where, though some are more fortunate than 
others, no one can escape physical and mental suffering, a 
world where everybody experiences some degree of contradic- 
tion between what he desires to do and what his conscience 
tells him he ought to do or others will allow him to do. Every- 
body wishes that this world were not like that, that he could 
live in a world where desires would conflict neither with each 

other nor with duties nor with the laws of nature, and a great 
number of us enjoy imagining what such a world would be 

Our dream pictures of the Happy Place where suffering 
and evil are unknown are of two kinds, the Edens and the 

New Jerusalems. Though it is possible for the same individual 
to imagine both, it is unlikely that his interest in both will 
be equal and I suspect that between the Arcadian whose 
favorite daydream is of Eden, and the Utopian whose favorite 
daydream is of New Jerusalem there is a characterological 
gulf as unbridgeable as that between Blake’s Prolifics and 

In their relation to the actual fallen world, the difference 

between Eden and New Jerusalem is a temporal one. Eden 
is a past world in which the contradictions of the present world 
have not yet arisen; New Jerusalem is a future world in which 
they have at last been resolved. Eden is a place where its 
inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over 
its gate is, “Do what thou wilt is here the Law.” New Jeru- 
salem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they 
ought to do, and its motto is, “In His will is our peace.” 

In neither place is the moral law felt as an imperative; in 
Eden because the notion of a universal law is unknown, in 
New Jerusalem because the law is no longer a law-for, com- 

The Shield of Perseus 

410 ] 

manding that we do this and abstain from doing that, but 
a law-of, like the laws of nature, which describes how, in fact, 
its inhabitants behave. 

To be an inhabitant of Eden, it is absolutely required 
that one be happy and likable; to become an inhabitant of 
New Jerusalem it is absolutely required that one be happy 
and good. Eden cannot be entered; its inhabitants are born 
there. No unhappy or unlikable individual is ever born there 
and, should one of its inhabitants become unhappy or un- 
likable, he must leave. Nobody is born in New Jerusalem but, 
to enter it, one must, either through ones own acts or by Divine 
Grace, have become good. Nobody ever leaves New Jerusalem, 
but the evil or the unredeemed are forever excluded. 

The psychological difference between the Arcadian dreamer 
and the Utopian dreamer is that the backward-looking Arca- 
dian knows that his expulsion from Eden is an irrevocable 
fact and that his dream, therefore, is a wish-dream which 
cannot become real; in consequence, the actions which led 
to his expulsion are of no concern to his dream. The forward- 
looking Utopian, on the other hand, necessarily believes 
that his New Jerusalem is a dream which ought to be realized 
so that the actions by which it could be realized are a neces- 
sary element in his dream; it must include images, that is to 
say, not only of New Jerusalem itself but also images of the 
Day of Judgment. 

Consequently, while neither Eden nor New Jerusalem are 
places where aggression can exist, the Utopian dream permits 
indulgence in aggressive fantasies in a way that the Ajcadian 
dream does not. Even Hitler, I imagine, would have defined 
his New Jerusalem as a world where there are no Jews, not 
as a world where they are being gassed by the million day 
after day in ovens, but he was a Utopian, so the ovens had 
to come in. 

How any individual envisages Eden is determined by his 
temperament, personal history and cultural milieu, but to all 
dream Edens the following axioms, I believe, apply. 

i) Eden is a world of pure being and absolute unique- 
ness. Change can occur but as an instantaneous trans- 

DingUy DeU & The Fleet 

[ 4 “ 

formation, not through a process of becoming. Everyone 
is incomparable. 

2) The self is satisfied whatever it demands; the ego 
is approved of whatever it chooses. 

3) 'TTiere is no distinction between the objective and the 
subjective. What a person appears to others to be is identi- 
cal with what he is to himself. His name and his clothes 
are as much his as his body, so that, if he changes them, 
he turns into someone else. 

4) Space is both safe and free. There are walled gardens 
but no dungeons, open roads in all directions but no 
wandering in the wilderness. 

5) Temporal novelty is without anxiety, temporal repeti- 
tion without boredom. 

6) Whatever the social pattern, each member of society 
is satisfied according to his conception of his needs. If 
it is a hierarchical society, all masters are kind and 
generous, all servants faithful old retainers. 

7) Whatever people do, whether alone or in company, 
is some kind of play. The only motive for an action 
is the pleasure it gives the actor, and no deed has a goal 
or an effect beyond itself. 

8) Three kinds of erotic life are possible, though any 
particular dream of Eden need contain only one. The 
polymorphous-perverse promiscuous sexuality of child- 
hoc^, courting couples whose relation is potential, not 
actual, and the chastity of natural celibates who are 
without desire. 

9) Though there can be no suffering or grief, there can 
be death. If a death occurs, it is not a cause for sorrow 
— the dead are not missed — ^but a social occasion for a 
lovely funeral. 

10) The Serpent, acquaintance with whom results in 
immediate expulsion — any serious need or desire. 

The four great English experts on Eden are Dickens, Oscar 
Wilde, Ronald Firhank and P. G. Wodehouse.^ 

^N. B. To my surprise, die rnily creators of Edens during the last duee 
centuries I can think of, have all oeen English. 

The Shield of Perseus 

412 ] 

If, in comparing their versions of Eden with those of the 
Ancient World, I call theirs Christian, I am not, of course, 
asserting anything about their own beliefs. I only mean 
that their versions presuppose an anthropology for which 
Christianity is, historically, responsible. Whether it can exist 
in a society where the influence of Christianty has never 
been felt or has been eradicated, I do not know. I suspect 
that works like Pickwick Papers, The Importance of Being 
Earnest, The Flower Beneath the Foot, and Blandings 
Castle would bewilder a Russian Communist as much as they 
would have bewildered an Ancient Greek. The Communist 
would probably say: “It is incredible that anybody should like 
people so silly and useless as Mr. Pickwick, Miss Prism, 
Madame Wetme and Bertie Wooster.” The Greek would 
probably have said: “It is incredible that such people, so 
plain, middle-aged and untalented, should be happy." 

When the Greeks pictured Eden, they thought of it as a 
place which the gods or Chance might permit to exist. In 
his tenth Pythian Ode, Pindar describes the life of the 

Never the Muse is absent 

from their ways: lyres clash and the flutes cry 

and everywhere maiden choruses whirling. 

They bind their hair in golden laurel and take their 

Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed 
In their sacred blood; far from labor and batde 
they live; they escape Nemesis 
the overjust. 

Or it might exist, like the Islands of the Blessed, as a place 
of rest and reward for dead heroes. The Greek poets speak 
of it, not as an imaginary poetic world, but as a distant re- 
gion of the real world which they have not visited but of 
which they have heard reports. Pindar’s description of the 
Hyperboreans is related to his definition of the difference 
between gods and men in the sixth Nemean: 

Dingley Dell Br The Fleet 

[ 413 

There is one 

race of men, one race of gods; both have breath 
of life from a single mother. But sundered power 
holds us divided, so that the one is nothing, while 
for the other the brazen sky is established 
their sure citadel for ever. Yet we have some like- 
ness in great 

intelligence or strength to the immortals, 
though we know not what the day will bring, what 

after nightfall 

destiny has written that we must run to the end. 

Gods and men do not differ in nature, only in power; the 
gods are immortal and can do what they like, men are mortal 
and can never foresee the consequences of their actions. 
Therefore, the more powerful a man is, the more godlike 
he becomes. It is possible to conceive of men so girted by 
fortune that, like the Hypoboreans, their life would be 
indistinguishable from that of the gods. 

This is a conception natural to a shame-culture in which 
who a man is is identical with what he does and suffers. 
The happy man is the fortunate man, and fortune is ob- 
jectively recognizable; to be fortunate means to be success- 
ful, rich, powerful, beautiful, admired. When such a culture 
imagines Eden, therefore, it automatically excludes the weak 
and the ungifted, children, old people, poor people, ugly 

The first significant difference between the conception of 
man held by a shame-culture and that of a guilt-culture is 
that a guilt-culture distinguishes between what a man is to 
other men, the self he manifests in his body, his actions, his 
words, and what he is to himself, a unique ego which is un- 
changed by anything he does or suffers. In a shame-culture, 
there is no real difference between statements in the third 
person and statements in the first; in a guilt-culture, they 
are totally distinct. In the statement Jones is six feet tall, the 

The Shield of Perseus 

414 ] 

predicate qualifies the subject; in the statement I am six feet 
uM, it does not. It qualifies a self which the subject recog- 
nizes to be six feet tall; the I has no height. 

In a shame-culture, the moral judgment a man passes upon 
himself is identical with that which others pass on him; the 
virtue or shamefulness of an act lies in the nature of the act 
itself, irrespective or the doer’s personal intention or responsi- 
bility. In a guilt-culture, the subject passes moral judgment 
upon his thoughts and feelings even if they are never real- 
ized in action, and upon his acts irrespective of whether others 
know of them or not, approve of them or not. 

In a guilt-culture, therefore, there are a special series of 
first-person propositions in which the predicate does qualify 
the subject. For example: 

I am innocent/guilty 
I am proud/humble 
I am penitent/impenitent 
I am happy /unhappy. 

(I am in a state of pleasure/pain is not, of course, one 

of them. Pain and pleasure are states of the self, not of 

the ego.) 

If I make any such assertion, it must be true or false, but 
no person except myself can know which; there is no way in 
which, from observing me, another can come to any conclu- 

A writer brought up in a Christian society who would de- 
scribe Eden has, therefore, to cope with a problem which his 
pagan predecessors were spared. As an artist he can only deal 
in the manifest and objective — ^his Eden, like the pagan one, 
must be a fortunate place where there is no suffering and 
everybody has a good time — but he has to devise a way of 
making outward appearances signify subjective states of in- 
nocence and happiness to which, in the real world, they are 
not necessarily related. 

If one compares versions of Eden by pagan writers with 
Christian versions, it is noticeable that the former are beauti- 

Dingley DeU Sr The fleet ( 4*5 

ful in a serious way and that the latter are for the most part 
comic, even grotesque; they reserve the serious for descriptions 
of New Jerusalem. 

Suppose a writer wishes to show that every man loves himself, 
not because of this or that quality he possesses, but simply 
because he is uniquely he, what can he do? One possible 
image is that of an exceptionally ugly man — ^prodigiously fat, 
let us say — ^who is nevertheless convinced that he is irre- 
sistible to the ladies. 

Here the exceptional obesi^ is an indirect sign for the 
uniqueness of the subject, and the fantastic vanity — ^in real 
life, a man must he reasonably good-looking before he can 
become vain in this way — ^an indirect sign for the independ- 
ence of self-love from any quality of the self. But both signs 
remain indirect; the ugliest, the most average-looking and 
the most beautiful human beings all love themselves in the 
same way. 

Suppose he wishes to portray a humble man. The writer 
can show someone engaging by his own choice — he is per- 
fecdy free to refuse — in activities for which he has no 
talent whatsoever and at which, therefore, he is bound to fail 
and look ridiculous, and then show him as radiant vrith self- 
esteem in his failure as if he had triumphed. Here self- 
esteem in a situation which in real life would destroy it is 
an indirect sign for humility; but not a direct sign, for a success- 
ful man can he humble too. 

Or again, suppose a writer wishes to portray an innocent 
man. No human being is innocent, but small children are not 
yet personally guilty. It is possible that they have some 
knowledge of good and evil, but it is certain they have no 
innate knowledge of what their parents and society call right 
and wrong, and apply alike to such diverse matters as toTiet 
habits, social manners, stealing and cruelty. 

Compared with a normal adult, a small child is lacking 
in a sense of honor and a sense of shame. One way, therefore, 
in which a writer can portray an innocent man is to show an 
adult behaving in a way which his society considers out- 

The Shield of Perseus 

416 ] 

rageous without showing the slightest awareness of public 
opinion. A normal adult might wish to behave in the same 
way and even do so if he were certain that nobody else 
would get to hear of his behavior, but fear of social disap- 
proval will prevent him from behaving so in public. The 
lack of shame is an indirect sign of innocence but, once again, 
not a direct sign, because lunatics show the same lack of 

When the novel opens, Mr. Pickwick is middle-aged. In his 
farewell speech at the Adelphi, he says that nearly the whole 
of his previous life had been devoted to business and the pur- 
suit of wealth, but we can no more imagine what he did during 
those years than we can imagine what Don Quixote did before 
he went mad or what Falstaff was like as a young man. In 
our minds Mr. Pickwick is bom in middle age with inde- 
pendent means; his mental and physical powers are those 
of a middle-aged man, his experience of the world that of a 
newborn child. The society into which he is born is a com- 
mercial puritanical society in which wealth is honored, pov- 
erty despised, and any detected lapse from the strictest 
standards of propriety severely punished. In such a society, 
Mr. Pickwick’s circumstances and nature make him a for- 
tunate individual. He is comfortably off and, aside from a 
tendency at times to overindulge in food and drink, without 
vices. Sex, for example, is no temptation to him. One cannot 
conceive of him either imagining himself romantically in love 
with a girl of the lower orders, like Don Quixote, or con- 
sorting with whores, like Falstaff. So far as his experience 
goes, this world is an Eden without evil or suffering. 

His sitting-room was the first floor front, his bedroom 
the second floor front; and thus, whether he was sitting 
at his desk in his parlour or standing before the dressing- 
glass in his dormitory, he had an equal opportunity 
of contemplating human nature in all the numerous 
phases it exhibits, in that not more populous than pop- 
ular thoroughfare. His landlady, Mrs. Bardell — the relict 
and sole executrix of a deceased custom-house officer — 

Dinghy Dell & The Fhet 

[ 417 

was a comely woman of bustline manners and agree- 
able appearance, with a natural genius for cooking, 
improved by study and long practice, into an exquisite 
talent. There were no children, no servants, no fowls — 
cleanliness and quiet reigned throughout the house; and 
in it Mr. Pickwick’s will was law. 

His three young friends, Tupman, Snodgrass and Winkle, 
are equally innocent. Each has a ruling passion, Tupman 
for the fair sex, Snodgrass for poetry, and Winkle for sport, 
but their talents are not very formidably/ We are not given 
any specimen of Snodgrass’s poems, but we may presume 
that, at their best, they reach the poetic level of Mrs. Leo 
Hunter’s “Ode to an Expiring Frog.” 

Say, have fiends in shape of boys 
With wild halloo and brutal noise 
Hunted thee from marshy joys 
With a dog. 

Expiring frog? 

We are shown Winkle at a shoot and learn that the birds 
are in far less danger than the bystanders. Tupman’s age 
and girth are hardly good qualifications for a Romeo or a 
Don Juan. Contact with the world cures them of their il- 
lusions without embittering them, Eros teaches the two young 
men that the favors of Apollo and Artemis are not what 
they desire — Snodgrass marries Emily and becomes a gentle- 
man farmer. Winkle marries Arabella Allen and goes into 
his father’s business — and Tupman comes to acquiesce cheer- 
fully in the prospect of a celibate old age. 

TTie results of Mr. Pickwick’s scientific researches into the 
origin of the Hampstead Ponds and the nature of Tittlebats 
were no more reliable, we may guess, than his archaeology 
hut, as the book progresses, we discover that, if his ability 
at enquiry is less than he imagines, his capacity to learn is 
as great. What he learns is not what he set out to learn but 
is forced upon him by fate and by his decision to go to prison, 
hut his curiosity about life is just as eager at the end of the 

The Shield of Perseus 

418 ] 

book as it was at the beginning; what he has been taught 
is the difference between trivial and important truths. 

From time to time, Dickens interrupts his narrative to let 
Mr. Pickwick read or listen to a tale, ^me, like the Bagman’s 
story, the story of the goblins who stole a sexton, the anecdote 
of me tenant and the gloomy ghost, are tall tales about the 
supernatural, but a surprising number are melodramas about 
cases of extreme suffering and evil: a broken-down clown 
beats his devoted wife ana dies of D.T.’s; the son of a wicked 
father breaks his mother’s heart, is transported, returns after 
seventeen years and is only saved from panicide by his father 
dying before he can strike him; a madman raves sadistically; 
a man is sent to prison for debt by his father-in-law, his wife 
and child die, he comes out of prison and devotes the rest 
of his life to revenge, first refusing to save his enemy’s son 
from drowning and then reducing him to absolute want. 

Stories of this kind are not tall; they may be melodramat- 
ically written, but everybody knows that similar things 
happen in real life. Dickens’ primary reason for introducing 
them was, no doubt, that of any writer of a serial — to intro- 
duce a novel entertainment for his readers at a point when 
he feels they would welcome an interruption in the main 
narrative — ^but, intentionally or unintentionally, they con- 
tribute to our understanding of Mr. Pickwick. 

Mr. Pickwick is almost as fond of hearing horror tales 
and curious anecdotes as Don Quixote is of reading Courtly 
Romances, but the Englishman’s illusion about the relation- 
ship of literature to life is the opposite of the Spaniard’s. 

To Don Quixote, literature and life are identical; he be- 
lieves that, when his senses present him with facts which are 
incompatible with courtly romance, his senses must be de- 
ceiving him. To Mr. Pickwick, on the other hand, literature 
and life are separate universes; evil and suffering do not 
exist in the world he perceives with his senses, only in the 
world of entertaining fiction. 

Don Quixote sets out to be a Knight Errant, to win glory 
and the hand of his beloved by overthrowing the wicked and 
unjust and rescuing the innocent and afflicted. When Mr. 

Dingley Dell & The Fleet [ 419 

Pickwick and his friends set out for Rochester, they hive no 
such noble ambitions; they are simply looking for the novel 
and unexpected. Their reason for going to Bam or to Ipswich 
is that of the tourist — they have never been there. 

Don Quixote expects to suffer hardship, wounds and weari- 
ness in the good cause, and is inclined to suspect the pleasant, 
particularly if feminine, as either an illusion or a temptation 
to make him false to his vocation. The Pickwick Club expects 
to have nothing but a good time, seeing pretty towns and 
countrysides, staying in well-stocked inns and making pleasant 
new acquaintances like the Wardles. However, me first 
new new acquaintance they make in their exploration of Eden 
is with the serpent, Jingle, of whose real nature they have 
not the slightest suspicion. When Jingle’s elopement with 
Rachel Wardle opens his eyes, Mr. Pickwick turns into a 
part-time Knight Errant: he assumes that Jingle, the base 
adventurer, is a unique case and, whenever he comes across 
his tracks, he conceives it his duty not to rest until he has 
frustrated his fell designs, but his main purpose in travel is 
still to tour Eden. Rescuing unsuspecting females from ad- 
venturers has not become his vocation. 

During his first pursuit of Jingle, Mr. Pickwick meets Sam 
Weller, decides to engage him as a personal servant, and in 
trying to inform Mrs. Bardell of his decision creates the 
misunderstanding which is to have such unfortunate conse- 
quences. Sam Weller is no innocent; he has known what it 
is like to be destitute and homeless, sleeping under the arches 
of Waterloo Bridge, and he does not expect this world to be 
just or its inhabitants noble. He accepts Mr. Pickwick’s offer, 
not because he particularly likes him, but because the job 
promises to be a better one than that of the Boots at an inn. 

I wonder whether I’m meant to be a footman, or a groom, 
or a gamekeeper or a seedsman? I look like a sort of 
compo of every one of ’em. Never mind; there’s change 
of air, plenty to see, and little to do; and all diis suits 
my complaint uncommon. 

But before the story ends, he is calling Mr. Pickwick an 
angel, and his devotion to his master has grown so great 

The Shield of Perseus 

420 ] 

that he insists upon being sent to prison in order to look 
after him. For Sam Weller had, after all, his own kind of 
innocence: about the evil in the world he had learned as much 
as anybody, but his experience had never led him to suspect 
that a person so innocent of evil as Mr. Pickwick could in- 
habit it. 

Mr. Pickwick has hardly engaged Sam Weller when the letter 
arrives from Dodson and Fogg, announcing that Mrs. Bardell 
is suing him for Breach of Promise, and his real education be- 

If, hitherto, he had ever thought about the Law at all, 
he had assumed that it was what the Law must always claim 
to be: 

1) Just. Those acts which the Law prohibits and pun- 
ishes are always unjust; no just or innocent act is ever 
prohibited or punished. 

2) Efficient. There are no unjust acts or persons that the 
Law overlooks or allows to go unpunished. 

3) Infallible. Those whom the Law finds guilty are always 
guilty; no innocent person is ever found guilty. 

He has got to learn that none of these claims is fulfilled, 
and why, in this world, they cannot be fulfilled. 

Even were the Law formally perfect, its administration 
cannot be, because it has to be administered, not by angels or 
machines, but by human individuals who, like all human 
beings, vary in intelligence, temperament and moral char- 
acter: some are clever, some stupid, some kind, some cruel, 
some scrupulous, some unscrupulous. 

Moreover, lawyers are in the morally anomalous position of 
owing their livelihood and social status to the criminal, the 
unjust and the ignorant; if all men knew the Law and kept it, 
there would be no work for lawyers. Doctors also owe their 
livelihood to an evil, sickness, but at least sickness is a natural 
evil — men do not desire ill health — but crimes and civil wrongs 
are acts of human choice, so that the contradiction between 
the purpose of Law and the personal interest of lawyers is more 
glaring. And then the complexity of the Law and the nature 
of the legal process make those who practice law peculiarly 

Dinghy Dell & The Fleet [ 421 

liable to a vice v^hich one might call the vice of Imaginary In- 

No human being is innocent, but there is a class of innocent 
human actions called Games. 

A game is a closed world of action which has no relation to 
any other actions of those who play it; the players have no 
motive for playing the game except the pleasure it gives them, 
and the outcome of the game has no consequences beyond it- 
self. Strictly speaking, a game in which the players are paid 
to play, or in which they play for money stakes, ceases to be 
a game, for money exists outside the closed world of the game. 
In practice, one may say that a game played for stakes remains 
a game so long as the sums of money won or lost are felt by the 
players to be, not real, but token payments, that is to say, what 
they win or lose has no sensible effect upon their lives after 
the game is over. 

The closed world of the game is one of mock passions, not 
real ones. Many games are, formally, mock battles, but if any 
one of the players should feel or display real hostility, he im- 
mediately ceases to be a player. Even in boxing and wrestling 
matches, in which the claim to be called games at all is doubt- 
ful, the ritual of shaking hands at the beginning and end 
asserts that they are not fights between real enemies. 

Within the closed world of the game the only human beings 
are the players; the other inhabitants are things, balls, bats, 
chessman, cards, etc. 

Like the real world, the game world is a world of laws which 
the players must obey because obedience to them is a necessary 
condition for entering it. In the game world there is only one 
crime, cheating, and the penalty for this is exclusion; once a 
man is known to be a cheat, no other player will play with 

In a game the pleasure of playing, of exercising skill, takes 
precedence over the pleasure of winning. If this were not so, 
if victory were the real goal, a skillful payer would prefer to 
have an unskillful one as his opponent, but only those to 
whom, like cardsharpers, a game is not a game but a livelihood, 
prefer this. In the game world the pleasure of victory is the 

The Shield of Perseus 

4 ^ 2 . 1 

pleasure of just winning. The game world, therefore, is an 
innocent world because the ethical judgment good-or-bad does 
not apply to it; a good game means a game at the conclusion of 
which all the players, whether winners or losers, can truth- 
fully say that they have enjoyed themselves, a point which is 
made by the Little Man’s speech after the cricket match be- 
tween Dingley Dell and Muggleton. 

Sir, while we remember that Muggleton has given 
birth to a Dumkins and a Fodder, let us never forget that 
Dingley Dell can boast of a Luffey and a Struggles. 
Every gentleman who hears me, is probably acquainted 
with the reply made by an individual who — to use an 
ordinary figure of speech — “hung out” in a tub, to the 
Emperor Alexander: — “If I were not Diogenes,” said he, 

“I would be Alexander”: I can well imagine these gentle- 
men to say. If I were not Dumkins, I would be Luffey; If 
I were not Fodder, I would be Struggles. 

The vice of Imaginary Innocence consists in regarding an 
action in the op^’n world of reality as if it were an action in the 
closed world of the game. 

If this world were the st of all possible worlds, a world 
where everybody was obliged to do what he dislikes doing 
and prohibited from doing anything he enjoyed, ' this vice 
would be impossible. It is only possibK because some people 
have the good fortune to enjoy doing something which society 
requires to be done; what, from the point of view of society, 
is their necessary labor, i*; from their own. voluntary play. 
Men fall into this vice when, because of the pleasure which 
the exercise of their calling gives them, they forget that what 
is play for them may for others concern real needs and 

Before Mr. Fickwick has to suffer in person from this 
human failing, he has already witnessed a manifestation of it 
in the party politics of Eatanswill. 

Farty politics presupposes that it is possible for two people, 
equally rational and well-meaning, to hold different opinions 
about a policy and possible for a man to be convinced by 
argument that his opinion has been mistaken. It is also pre- 

Dinghy Dell & The Fleet 

[ 4^3 

supposes that, however widely their political opiniohs may 
differ, all voters are agreed mat the goal of politics is the 
establishment of a just and smoothly running society. But in 
Eatonswill the pleasure of party rivalry and debate has be- 
come an end in itself to both, parties, a closed game world, and 
the real goal of politics has been forgotten. 

The Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs 
and the Buffs lost no opportuni^ of opposing the Blues 
... If the Buffs proposed to new skylight the market 
place, the Blues got up public meeting and denounced 
the proceeding; if the Blues proposed me erection of an 
additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as 
one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were 
Blue shops and Buff shops. Blue Inns and Buff Inns; 
there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle in the very church 

On such a parochial scale politics as a game is relatively harm- 
less, though on a national scale it is vicious, but there can be 
no circumstances in which the practice of Law as a game is not 
vicious. People who are not lawyers never come into court for 
fun; they come, either because they have been arrested or be- 
cause they believe they have been wronged and see no other 
way of redress. Winning or losing their case is never a mock 
victory or defeat but always a real one; if they lose, they go to 
prison or suffer social disgrace or are made to pay money. 

Rightly or wrongly, it is believed in our culture that, in 
most criminal and civil trials, the best means of arriving at 
the ethical judgment guilty-or-not-guilty is through a kind of 
aesthetic verbal combat between a prosecuting and a defend- 
ing counsel, to which the judge acts as a referee, and the verdict 
is given by a jury. To say that a lawyer is a good lawyer, 
therefore, is an aesthetic not an ethical description; a good 
lawyer is not one who causes justice to be done, but one who 
wins his cases, whether his client be innocent or guilty, in 
the right or in the wrong, and nothing will enhance his 
reputation for being a good lawyer so mutm as tvinning a case 
against apparently hopeless odds, a state of affairs which is 
more likely to arise if his client is really guilty than if he is 

The Shield of Perseus 

424 ] 

really innocent. As men, Dodson and Fogg are scoundrels 
but, as lawyers, their decent colleague Mr. Perkins has to admit 
that they are very good. 

Mrs. Bardell, supported by Mrs. Chappins, was led in 
and placed in a drooping state at the other end of the 
seat on which Mr. Pickwick sat . . . Mrs. Saunders then 
appeared, leading in Master Bardell. At sight of her 
child, Mrs. Bardell started: suddenly recollecting herself, 
she kissed him in a frantic manner; then relapsing into a 
state of hysterical imbecility the good lady requested to 
be informed where she was. In reply to this, Mrs. Chap- 
pins and Mrs. Saunders turned their heads away and 
wept, while Messrs Dodson and Fogg intreated the plain- 
tiff to compose herself . . . “Very good notion, that in- 
deed,” whispered Perkins to Mr. Pickwick. “Capital 
fellows those Dodson and Fogg; excellent ideas of effect, 
my dear sir, excellent.” 

Dodson and Fogg may be scoundrels but they are not wicked 
men; though they cause undeserved suffering in others, they 
have no malevolent intent — the suffering they cause gives 
them no pleasure. To them, their clients are the pieces with 
which they play the legal game, which they find as enjoyable 
as it is lucrative. So, too, when Sergeant Buzzfuzz expresses 
his detestation of Mr. Pickwick's character, or Mr. Sumpkins 
bullies the unfortunate witness Winkle, what their victims feel 
as real hostility is, in fact, the mock hostility of the player: had 
they been engaged for the Defense, their abuse would have 
been directed against Mrs. Bardell and Mrs. Chappins, and 
they will have completely forgotten about the whole case by the 
next morning. The Guild Hall which is a Purgatory to Mr. 
Pickwick is to them what Dingley Dell is to him, an Arcadia. 

When he is found guilty, Mr. Pickwick takes a vow that he 
will never pay the damages. In so doing he takes his first step 
out of Eden into the real world, for to take a vow is to com- 
mit one’s future, and Eden has no conception of the future 
for it exists in a timeless present. In Eden, a man always does 
what he likes to do at the moment, but a man who takes a 

Dingley Dell & The Fleet [ 425 

vow cornmits himself to doing something in the futute which, 
when the time comes, he may dislike doing. The consequence 
of Mr. Pickwick’s vow is that he has to leave his Eden of 


clean linen and polished silver for a Limbo of dirty crockery 
and rusty broken toasting forks where, in the eyes or the Law, 
he is a guilty man, a lawbreaker among other lawbreakers. 

The particular class of lawbreakers among whom Mr. Pick- 
wick finds himself in The Fleet are debtors. In selecting this 
class of offender rather than another for him to encounter, one 
of Dickens’ reasons was, of course, that he considered the 
English laws of his day concerning debt to be monstrously 
unjust and sending his fictional hero there gave him an op- 
portunity for satirical exposure of a real social abuse. But in a 
world where money is the universal medium of exchange, 
the notion of debt has a deep symbolic resonance. Hence the 
clause in the Lord’s Prayer as it appears in the Authorized 
Version of St. Matthew — “Forgive us our debts as we forgive 
our debtors” — and the parable of the forgiving and unforgiv- 
ing creditor. 

To be in debt means to have taken more from someone 
than we have given whether the more refers to material or to 
spiritual goods. Since we are not autonomous beings who can 
create and sustain our lives by ourselves, every human being 
is in debt to God, to Nature, to parents and neighbors for his 
existence, and it is against this background of universal human 
debt that we view the special case of debt and credit between 
one individual and another. We are born unequal; even if all 
social inequalities were abolished, there would remain the 
natural inequalities of talent and inherited tendencies, and 
circumstance outside our control will always affect both our 
need to receive and our capacity to give. A rich man, in what- 
ever sense he is rich, can give more than a poor man; a baby 
and a sick person need more from others than a healthy adult. 
Debt or credit cannot be measured in quantitative terms; a 
relation between two persons is just if both take no more than 
they need and give as much as they can, and unjust if either 
takes more or gives less than this. 

In prison, Mr. Pickwick meets three kinds of debtors. There 
are those like Smangle who are rather thieves than debtors for 

The Shield of Perseus 

426 ] 

they have borrowed money with the conscious intention of not 
paying it back. There are the childish who believe in magic; 
they intended to return what they borrowed when their luck 
changed, but had no rational reason to suppose that it would. 
And there are those like the cobbler who have fallen into debt 
through circumstances which they could neither foresee nor 

An old gentleman that I worked for, dovm in the coun- 
try, and died well off, left five thousand pounds behind 
him, one of which he left to me, ’cause I’d married a 
humble relation of his. And being surrounded by a great 
number of nieces and nephews, as well always quarrel- 
ling and fighting among themselves for the property, he 
makes me his executor to divide the rest among ’em as 
the will provided, and I paid all the legacies. I’d hardly 
done it when one nevy brings an action to set the will 
aside. The case comes on, some months afterwards, afore 
a deaf old gentleman in a back room somewhere down 
by Paul’s Churchyard . . . and arter four counsels had 
taken a day a piece to both him regularly, he takes a week 
or two to consider and then gives his judgment that the 
testator was not quite right in the head, and I must pay 
all the money back again, and all the costs. I appealed; 
the case comes on before three or four very sleepy gentle- 
men, who had heard it all before in the other court and 
they very dutifully confirmed the decision of the old 
gentleman below. After that we went into Chancery, 
where we are still. My lawyers have had all my thousand 
pounds long ago; and what between the estate as they 
call it and the costs. I’m here for ten thousand, and shall 
stop here till I die, mending shoes. 

Yet, in the eyes of the Law, all three classes are equally guilty. 
'This does not mean, however, that all debtors receive the same 

The three chums informed Mr. Pickvdck in a breath 
that money was in the Fleet, just what money was out 
of it; that it would instandy procure him almost anything 

Dhtgley JytU Sf The Fleet I 4^7 

he desired; and that, supposing he had it, and had no 
objection to spend it, if he only signified his wish to^have 
a room to himself, he might take possession of one, fur- 
nished and fitted to boot, in half an hour’s dme. 

The lot of the penniless debtor, like the Chancery Prisoner, 
was, in Dickens’ time, atrocious, far worse than that of the 
convicted criminal, for the convict was fed gratis by the State 
but the debtor was not, so that, if penniless, he must subsist 
on the charity of his fellow prisoners or die of starvation. On 
the other hand, for those with a little money and no sense of 
shame, the Fleet Prison could seem a kind of Eden. 

There were many classes of people here, from the labor- 
ing man in his fustian jacket, to the broken down ^nd- 
thrift in his shawl dressing-gown, most appropriately out 
at elbows; but there was the same air about them all — a 
listless jail-bird careless swagger, a vagabondish who’s 
afraid sort of bearing which is indescribable in words . . . 

"It strikes me, Sam,^’ said Mr. Pickwick, “that imprison- 
ment for debt is scarcely any punishment at all.” “Think 
not, sir?,” inquired Mr. Weller. “You see how these 
fellows drink and smoke and roar,” replied Mr. Pickwick, 
It’s quite impossible that they can mind it much.” “Ah, 
that’s just the very thing sir,” rejoined Sam, “they don’t 
mind it; it’s a regular holiday to them — ^all porter and 
skittles. It is t’other wuns as gets down over, with this 
sort of thing: them down-hearted fellers as can’t swig 
away at the beer, nor play at skittles neither: them as 
would pay as they could, and get’s low by being boxed 
up. I’ll tell you wot it is, sir; them as is always a idlin’ in 
public houses it don’t damage at all, and them as is always 
a working wen they can, it damages too much.” 

His encounter with the world of the Fleet is the end of Mr. 
Pickwick’s innocence. When he started out on his adventures, 
he believed the world to be inhabited only by the well-mean- 
ing, the honest and the entertaining; presenuy he discovered 
that it also contains malevolent, dishonest and boring inhabit- 
ants, but it is only after entering the Fleet that he realizes it 

The Shield of Perseus 

428 ] 

contains persons who suffer, and that the division between 
those who are suffering and those who are not is more signifi- 
cant than the division between the just and the unjust, the 
innocent and the guilty. He himself, for instance, has been 
unjustly convicted, but he is in prison by his own choice and, 
though he does not enjoy the Fleet as much as Dingley Dell, 
by the standards of comfort within the Fleet, he enjoys the 
advantages of a king, not because he is morally innocent while 
Jingle and Trotter are morally guilty, but because he happens 
to be the richest inmate while they are among the poorest. 
Then Mrs. Bardell, who through stupidity rather than malice 
is responsible for the injustice done to him, becomes a fellow 
prisoner. Mr. Pickwick is compelled to realize that he, too, is a 
debtor, because he has been more fortunate than most people, 
and that he must discharge his debt by forgiving his enemies 
and relieving their suffering. In order to do his duty, he has to 
do in fact what he had been falsely accused of doing, commit 
a breach of promise by breaking his vow and putting money 
into the pockets of Dodson and Fogg; for the sake of charity, he 
has to sacrifice his honor. 

His loss of innocence through becoming conscious of the 
real world has the same consequences for Mr. Pickwick as a 
fictional character as recovering his sanity has for Don Quixote; 
in becoming ethically serious, both cease to be aesthetically 
comic, that is to say, interesting to the reader, and they must 
pass away, Don Quixote by dying, Mr. Pickwick by retiring 
from view. 

Both novels are based upon the presupposition that there is 
a difference between the Law and Grace, the Righteous man 
and the Holy man: this can only be expressed indirecdy by a 
comic contradiction in which the innocent hero comes into 
collision with the Law without appearing, in his own eyes, to 
suffer. The only way in which their authors can compel the 
reader to interpret this correctly — neither to ignore the sign 
nor to take it as a direct sign — is, in the end, to take off the 
comic mask and say: “The Game, the make-believe is over: 
players and spectators alike must now return to reality. What 
you have heard was but a tall story.” 


An aesthetic religion (polytheism) draws no distinction be- 
tween what is frivolous and what is serious because, for it, all 
existence is, in the last analysis, meaningless. The whims of 
the gods and, behind them, the whim of the Fates, are the 
ultimate arbiters of all that happens. It is immediately frivolous 
because it is ultimately in despair. 

A frivolity which is innocent, because unaware that anything 
serious exists, can be charming, and a frivolity which, precisely 
because it is aware of what is serious, refuses to take seriously 
that which is not serious, can be profound. What is so distaste- 
ful about the Homeric gods is that they are well aware of 
human suffering but refuse to take it seriously. They take the 
lives of men as frivolously as their own; they meddle with the 
former for fun, and then get bored. 

When Zeus had brought the Trojans and Hector close to 
the ships, he left them beside the ships to bear the toil 
and woe unceasingly, and he himself turned his shining 
eyes away, gazing afar at the land of the horse-rearing 
Thracians and the Mysians, who fight in close array, and 
the noble Hippomolgoi who live on milk, and the Abioi, 
most righteous of men. 

Clliad, Book XIII.) 

The Shield of Perseus 

430 ] 

They kill us for their sport. If so, no human sportsman would 
receive one of the gods in his house: they shoot men sitting 
and out of season. 

If Homer had tried reading the Iliad to the gods on Olympus, 
they would either have started to fidget and presently asked if 
he nadn’t got something a little lighter, or, taking it as a comic 
poem, would have roared with laughter or possibly, even, 
reacting like ourselves to a tear-jerking movie, have poured 
pleasing tears. 

The songs of Apollo; the lucky improvisations of an amateur. 

The only Greek god who does any work is Hephaestus, and he 
is a lame cuckold. 

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God 
the things that are God’s. Christianity draws a distinction be- 
tween what is frivolous and what is serious, hut allows the 
former its place. What it condemns is not frivolity but idolatry, 
that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously. 

The past is not to be taken seriously (Let the dead bury their 
dead^ nor the future (Take no thought for the ntorrow\ only 
the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional 
content but for its historic decisiveness. (Now is the appointed 

Man desires to be free and he desires to feel important. This 
places him in a dilemma, for the more he emancipates himself 
from necessity the less important he feels. 

That is why so many actes gratuits axe criminal: a man 
asserts his freedom by disobeying a law and retains a sense of 
self-importance because the law he has disobeyed is an impor- 
tant one. Much crime is magic, an attempt to make free with 

An alternative to criminal magic is the innocent game. Games 
are actes gratuits in which the players obey rules chosen by 
themselves. Games are freer than crimes because the rules of a 
game are arbitrary and moral laws are not; but they are less 

Postscripti The Frivolous & The Earnest [ 431 

The rules of a game give it importance to those who play it by 
making it difficult, a test of skill. This means, however, that a 
game can only be important to those who have the particular 
physical or mental skills which are required to play it, and the 
gift of such skills is a matter of chance. 

To the degree that a vocation or a profession requires some 
gift, it partakes, for him who is able to practice it, of the nature 
of a game, however serious the social need it serves. The 
famous brain surgeon, Dr. Cushing, was once consulted by a 
student as to whether or not he should specialize in surgery: 
the doctor settled the question for him in the negative by ask- 
ing; “Do you enjoy the sensation of putting a knife into living 

To witness an immoral act, like a man beating his wife, makes 
a spectator angry or unhappy. To witness an untalented act, 
like a clumsy man wrestling with a window blind or a piece of 
bad sculpture, makes him laugh. 

Life is not a game because one cannot say: “I will live on con- 
dition that I have a talent for living.” Those who cannot play 
a game can always be spectators, but no one can hire somebody 
else to live his life for him while he looks on. 

In a game, just losing is almost as satisfying as just winning. 
But no man ever said with satisfaction, “1 mmost married the 

i ;irl I love,” or a nation, “We almost won the war.” In life the 
oser’s score is always zero. 

Nothing can be essentially serious for man except that which 
is given to all men alike, and that which is commanded of all 
men alike. 

All men alike are given a physical body with physical needs 
which have to be satisfied if they are to survive, and all men 
alike are given a will which has the power to make choices. 
(To say of someone that his will is strong or weak is not like 
saying that he is tall or short, or even that he is clever or 
stupid: it is a description of how his will functions, not an 
assessment of the amount of will power he possesses.) 

The Shield of Perseus 

43i ] 

Corresponding to these gifts are two commands: “In the 
sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” and "Thou shalt love 
the Lord thy God and thy neighbor as thyself,” are both 
commanded of all men alike. 

Thus the only two occupations which are intrinsically 
serious are the two which do not call for any particular natural 
gifts, namely, unskilled manual labor and the priesthood (in 
its ideal aspects as the Apostolate). Any unskilled laborer and 
any priest is interchangeable with every other. Any old porter 
can carry my bag, any trumpery priest absolve me of a mortal 
sin. One cannot say of an unskilled laborer or of a priest that 
one is better or worse than another; one can only say, in the 
case of the laborer, that he is employed, in the case of the 
priest, that he has been ordained. 

Of all other occupations, one must say that, in themselves, 
they are frivolous. They are only serious in so far that they are 
the means by which those who practice them earn their bread 
and are not parasites on the labor of others, and to the degree 
that they permit or encourage the love of God and neighbor. 

There is a game called Cops and Robbers, but none called 
Saints and Sinners. 

It is incorrect to say, as the Preamble to the American Con- 
stitution says, that all men have a right to the pursuit of happi- 
ness. All men have a right to avoid unncessary pain if they 
can, and no man has a right to pleasure at the cost of another’s 
pain. But happiness is not a right; it is a duty. To the degree 
that we are unhappy, we are in sin. (And vice versa.) A duty 
cannot be pursued because its imperative applies to the present 
instant, not to some future date. 

My duty towards God is to be happy; my duty towards my 
neighbor is to try my best to give him pleasure and alleviate 
his pain. No human being can make another one happy. 


No genius has an in order that: the Apostle has 
absolutely and paradomcally an in order that. 



In such theoretical discussions concerning the nature of 
drama as I have read, it has always seemed to me that insuf- 
ficient attention was paid to the nature of the actor. What 
distinguishes a drama from both a game and a rite is that, in 
a game, the players play themselves and, in a rite, though the 
participants may represent somebody else, a god, for instance, 
they do not have to imitate him, any more than an ambassador 
to a foreign country has to imitate the sovereign whom he 
represents. Further, in both a game and a rite, the actions 
are real actions, or at least, real to the participants — goals are 
scored, the bull is killed, the bread and wine are transubstan- 
tiated — ^but, in a drama, all actions are mock actions — the 

The Shield of Perseus 

434 ] 

actor who plays Banquo is not really murdered, the singer 
who plays Don Giovanni may himself he a henpecked hus- 

No other human activity seems as completely gratuitous 
as "acting”; games are gratuitous acts, but it can be argued 
that they have a utile value — they develop the muscles or 
sharpen the wits of those who play them — but what con- 
ceivable purpose could one human being have for imitating 

The fact that dramatic action is mock action and mimetic art 
completely gratuitous makes the dramatic picture of human 
life a peculiar one. In real life, we exist as bodies, social indi- 
viduals and unique persons simultaneously, so that there can 
be no human deed or act of personal choice which is without 
an element of human behavior, what we do from necessity, 
either the necessities of our physical nature or the habits of 
our socially acquired “second nature.” But on the stage, the 
kind of human life we see is a life of pure deeds from which 
every trace of behavior has been eliminated. Consequently, 
any human activity which cannot be imagined without its 
element of necessity, cannot be represented on the stage. 
Actors, for example, can toy with cucumber sandwiches, but 
they cannot eat a hearty meal because a hearty meal cannot 
be imagined taking less than three quarters of an hour to 
consume. Dramatists have been known to expect an actor to 
write a letter on stage, but it always looks ridiculous; on stage 
a letter can be read aloud but not written in silence. Nor can 
an actor do any serious piece of work, for real work cannot be 
imagined apart from the real time it takes. Only deeds can 
be divorced from real time. Thus, a man might write in his 
diary, “I began or I finished work at 9: 1 5,” but he would never 
write "I worked at 9:15”; (as a court witness he might say, "I 
was working at 9:15”); on the other hand, he might very well 
write, “At 9:15 I proposed to Julia and she accepted me” be- 
cause, although his words of proposal and hers of acceptance 
must have taken a certain length of time to utter, this is irrele- 
vant to the dramatic significance of the event. 

Genius & Apostle [ 435 

Since human life, as the stage can present it, is, fintly, a life 
of pure action and, secondly, a public life— the actors play 
to an audience, not to themselves — ^the characters best-suited 
to drama are men and women who by fate or choice lead a 
public existence and whose deeds are of public concern. 
Worldly ambition, for example, is a more mamatic motive 
than sexual passion, because worldly ambition can only be 
realized in public, while sexual passion unless, like that of 
Antony and Cleopatra, it has political consequences, affects 
only a handful of persons. Unfortunately for the modern 
dramatist, during the past century and a half the public realm 
has been less and less of a realm where human deeds are 
done, and more and more a realm of mere human behavior. 
The contemporary dramatist has lost his natural subject. , 

This process was already far advanced in the nineteenth 
century and dramatists, like Ibsen, who took their art seriously, 
were beginning to look for new kinds of heroes. The romantic 
movement had brought to public notice a new kind of hero, 
the artist-genius. The public interest taken in figures like 
Victor Hugo, Dickens and Wagner would have been unthink- 
able two centuries earlier. 

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, a dramatist would 
ask himself if the artist-genius could be substituted for the 
traditional man-of-action as a dramatic hero. A sensible 
dramatist, however, would immediately realize that a direct 
treatment would be bound to fail. An artist is not a doer of 
deeds but a maker of things, a worker, and work cannot be 
represented on stage because it ceases to be work if the time 
it takes is foreshortened, so that what makes an artist of 
interest, his art — aside from which he is not an artist but 
simply a man — ^will have to take place off stage. Secondly, 
the audience will have to be convinced that the figure they 
are told is a genius really is one, not somebody without any 
talent who says he is a genius. If he is a poet, for example, 
the poetry of his which the audience hear must be of the first 
order. But, even if the dramatist is himself a great poet, the 
only kind of poetry he can write is his own; he cannot make 
up a special kind of poetry for his hero, unlike his own yet 

The Shield of Perseus 

436 1 

equally great. Lastly, while deeds and character are identical, 
works and character are not; the relation between who an art- 
ist is as a person and what he makes is too vague to discuss. 
To say that Lesbia’s treatment of Catullus and his love for her 
were the cause of his poetry is a very different thing from 
saying that Macbeth's ambition and the prophecies of the 
witches were the cause of Banquo’s murder. Had both their 
characters been different, the poems would, no doubt, have 
been different, but their characters do not explain why 
Catullus wrote the actual poems he did, and not an infinite 
number of others which he might equally well have written 
but did not. 

In order to become an artist, a man must be endowed with 
an exceptional talent for fabrication or expression, but what 
makes it possible for him to exercise this talent and for his 
public to appreciate it is the capacity of all human beings to 
imagine anything which is the case as being otherwise; every 
man, for example, can imagine committing a murder or laying 
down his life for a friend’s without actually doing so. Is there, 
one can picture Ibsen asking himself, perhaps subconsciously, 
any figure traditionally associated with the stage who could 
be made to stand for this imaginative faculty? Yes, there is: 
the actor. Keats’ famous description of the poet applies even 
more accurately to the actor. 

As to the poetic character itself, it is not itself: it has no 
self — it is everything and nothing. The Sun, the Moon, 
the sea, and men and women who are creatures of im- 
pulse, are poetical and have about them an unchange- 
able attribute — the poet has none: no identity. 

Throughout Peer Gynt, one question keeps being asked and 
answered in various ways, namely. Who am 1? What is my 
real self? For the animals, the question does not arise. 

What innocence is in the life of beasts. 

They perform the behest of their great creator. 

'They are themselves. 

Genius Apostle [ 437 

The nearest human approximation to this animr.l selfhood 
is the “second nature” a man acquires through heredity and 
social custom. 

My father thieves, 

His son must steal. 

My father received, 

And so must I. 

We must bear our lot. 

And be ourselves. 

So, too, with the drowning cook who gets as far in the Lord’s 
Prayer as Give us this day our daily bread and then sinks. 

Amen, lad. 

You were yourself to the end. 

Next comes the social “idiot” in the Greek sense, the indi- 
vidual whose life is as conditioned by one personal overriding 
interest as the conventional individual’s is by social habit. In 
the first act Peer sees a young peasant cutting off a finger in 
order to escape conscription; Peer is fascinated and shocked: 

The thought perhaps — the wish to will. 

That I can understand, but really 
To do the deed. Ah me, that beats me. 

In the last act he hears a funeral sermon about the same 
peasant in which the parson says: 

He was a bad citizen, no doubt. 

For Church and State alike, a sterile tree — 

But up there on the rocky mountain side 
Where his work lay, there I say he was great 
Because he was himself. 

Neither of these human ways of being oneself, however, sat- 
isfy Peer. He tells his mother he means to be a King and 
Emperor, but there is only one kind of empire which nobody 
else can threaten or conquer, the empire of one’s own con- 
sciousness, or, as Peer defines it:_ 

The Shield of Perseus 

438 ) 

The G)mtian Self — An army that, 

Of wishes, appetites, desires! 

The Gyntian Self — It is a sea 
Of fancies, claims, and aspirations. 

But die Peer we see on stage has no appetites or desires in 
the ordinary sense; he plays at having them. Ibsen solves the 
problem of presenting a poet dramatically by showing us a 
man who treats nearly everything he does as a role, whether 
it be dealing in slaves and idols or being an Eastern Prophet. 
A poet in real life would have written a drama about slave 
trading, then another drama about a prophet but, on the 
stage, play acting stands for making. 

The kinship of the poet to the dreamer on the one hand 
and the rnadman on the other and his difference from them 
both is shown by Peer’s experiences, first in the kingdom of 
the trolls and then in the asylum. The kingdom of dreams 
is ruled by wish or desire; the dreaming ego sees as being 
the case whatever the self desires to be the case. The ego, 
that is to say, is the helpless victim of the self; it cannot say, 
"I’m dreaming.” In madness it is the self which is the help- 
less victim of the ego; a madman says, "I am Napoleon,” and 
his self cannot tell him, “You’re a liar.” (One of the great 
difficulties in translating Peer Gynt is, I understand, that 
Norwegian has two words, one for the I which is conscious 
and another for the self of which it is conscious, where Eng- 
lish has only one. Myself can mean either.) 

Both the dreamer and the madman are in earnest; neither 
is capable of play acting. The dreamer is like the moviegoer 
who writes abusive letters to the actor he has seen playing a 
villain; the madman is like the actor who believes the same 
thing about himself, namely, that he is identical with his role. 

But the poet pretends for fun; he asserts his freedom by 
lying — ^that is to say, by creating worlds which he knows are 
imaginary. When the troll king offers to turn Peer into a real 
troll by a little eye operation. Peer indignantly refuses. He is 
perfectly willing, he says, to swear that a cow is a beautiful 
maiden, but to be reduced to a condition in which he could 
not tell one from the other — that he will never submit to. 

GetuMS & AfosHe [ 439 

The difference between trolls and men, says the king, is 
that the Troll Motto is To Thyself Be Enough, while the 
Human Motto is To Thyself Be True. The Button-Moulder 
and the Lean One both have something to say about the 

To be oneself is: to slay oneself. 

But on you that answer is doubtless lost; 

And therefore we’ll say: to stand forth everywhere 
With Master’s intention displayed like a sign-board. 

Remember, in two ways a man can be 
Himself — there’s a right and wrong side to the jacket. 
You know they have lately discovered in Paris 
A way to take portraits by help of the sun. 

One can either produce a straightforward picture. 

Or else what is known as a negative one. 

In the latter the lights and the shades are reversed. 

But suppose there is such a thing as a poetic vocation or, in 
terms of Ibsen’s play, a theatrical vocation; how do their words 
apply? If a man can be called to be an actor, then the only 
way he can be “true” to himself is by “acting,” that is to say, 
pretending to be what he is not. The dreamer and the mad- 
man are “enough” to themselves because they are unaware 
that anything exists except their own desires and hallucina- 
tions; the poet is “enough” to himself in the sense that, while 
knowing that others exist, as a poet he does without them. 
Outside Norway, Peer has no serious relations with others, 
male or female. On the subject of friendship, Ibsen once 
wrote to Georg Brandes: 

Friends are a costly luxury, and when one invests one’s 
capital in a mission in life, one cannot afford to have 
friends. The expensiveness of friendship does not lie in 
what one does for one’s friends, but in what, out of re- 
gard for them, one leaves undone. This means the crush- 
ing of many an intellectual germ. 

The Shield of Perseus 

440 ] 

But every poet is also a human being, distinguishable from 
what he makes, and through Peer’s rdations to Ase and Sol- 
veig, Ibsen is trying to show us, I believe, what kind of 

K n is likely to b^ome a poet — ^assuming, of course, that 
IS the necessary talent. According to Ibsen, the predis- 
posing factors in childhood are, first, an isolation from the 
social group — owing to his fathers drunkenness and spend- 
thrift habits, he is looked down on by the neighbors — and 
second, a playmate who stimulates and shares his imaginative 
life — a role played by his mother. 

Ay, you must know that my husband, he drank. 
Wasted and trampled our gear under foot. 

And meanwhile at home there sat Peerkin and I — 

The best we could do was to try to forget. . . . 

Some take to brandy, and others to lies; 

And we — ^why, we took to fairy-tales. 

It is not too fanciful, I believe, to think of laboring as a 
neuter activity, doing as masculine, and making as feminine. 
All fabrication is an imitation of motherhood and, whenever 
we have information about the childhood of an artist, it 
reveals a closer bond with his mother than with his father; in 
a poet’s development, the phrase The milk of the Word is not 
a mere figure of speech. 

In their games together, it is the son who takes the initia- 
tive and the mother who seems the younger, adoring child. 
Ase dies and bequeaths to Solveig, the young virgin, the role 
of being Peer’s Muse. If the play were a straight realistic 
drama. Peer’s treatment of Solveig would bear the obvious 
psychoanalytic explanation — namely, that he suffers from a 
mother-fixation which forbids any serious sexual relation: he 
cannot love any women with whom he sleeps. But the play 
is a parable and, parabolically, the mother-child relationship 
has, I believe, another significance: it stands for the kind of 
love that is unaffected by time and remains unchanged by any 
act of the partners. Many poets, it would seem, do their best 
work when they are “in love,” but the psychological condi- 

Genius & Apostle [441 

tion of being "in love” is incompatible with a sustained his- 
torical relationship like marriage. The poet’s Muse mu^ either 
be dead like Dante’s Beatrice, or far away like Peer’s Solveig, 
or keep on being reincarnated in one lady after another. Ase’s 
devotion gives Peer his initial courage to become a poet and 
live without an identity of his own, Solveig gives him tlie cour- 
age to continue to the end. When at the end of the play he asks 
her, “Where is the real Peer?” — the human being as distinct 
from his poetic function — she answers, “In my faith, in my 
hope, in my love.” This is an echo of his own belief. Ibsen 
leaves in doubt the question whether this faith is justified or 
not. It may be that, after all, the poet must pay for his voca- 
tion by ending in the casting-ladle. But Peer has so far been 
lucky: “He had women behind him.” 

The insoluble difficulty about the artist as a dramatic char- 
acter is that, since his relations with others are either momen- 
tary or timeless, he makes any coherent plot impossible. Peer 
Gynt is a fascinating play, but one cannot say its structure is 
satisfying. Practically the whole of the drama (and nearly 
all of the best scenes) is a Prologue and an Epilogue: the 
Prologue shows us how a boy comes to be destined for the 
vocation of poet rather than a career as a statesman or an 
engineer, the Epilogue shows us the moral and psychological 
crisis for a poet in old age when death faces him and he 
must account for his life. Only in the Fourth Act are we 
shown, so to speak, the adult poet at work, and in this act 
the number of scenes and the number of characters intro- 
duced are purely arbitrary. Ibsen uses the act as an oppor- 
tunity to make satirical comments on various aspects of 
Norwegian life, but Peer himself is only accidentally related 
to the satire. 


Two years before Peer Gynt, Ibsen wrote Brand. Both were 
composed in Italy, and Ibsen said of them: 

The Shield of Perseus 

442 ] 

May I not like Christoff in Jacob von Tyboe, point 
to Brand and Peer Gynt and say — See, the wine cup 
has done this. 

The heroes of these two plays are related to each other by 
being each other’s opposite. To Peer the Devil is a dangerous 
viper who tempts man to do the irretrievable; to Brand the 
Devil is Compromise. 

Brand is a priest. Ibsen once said that he might equally 
well have made him a sculptor or a politician, but this is not 
true. In Rome Ibsen had met and been deeply impressed by 
a young Norwegian theological student and IGerkegaard en- 
thusiast, Christopher Brunn. At the time Ibsen was very 
angry with his fellow countrymen for having refused to come 
to the aid of Denmark when Germany attacked her and 
annexed Schleswig-Holstein. Brunn had actually fought as 
a volunteer in the Danish army and he asked Ibsen why, if 
he had felt as strongly as he professed, he had not done like- 
wise. Ibsen made the answer one would expect — ^a poet has 
other tasks to perform — ^but it is clear that the question made 
him very uncomfortable and Brand was a product of his dis- 

Whether he had read it for himself or heard of it from 
Brunn, it seems evident that Ibsen must have been aware 
of Kierkegaard’s essay on the difference between a genius 
and an aposde. In Peer Gynt he deals with the first; in Brand, 
which he wrote first, with the second. 

An apostle is a human individual who is called by God to 
deliver a message to mankind. Oracles and shamans are divine 
mouthpieces, but they are not apostles. An oracle or a shaman 
is an accredited public official whose spiritual authority is 
recognized by all; he does not have to seek out others but sits 
and waits for them to consult him — Delphi is the navel of 
the world. He receives a professional training and, in order 
to qualify, he must exhibit certain talents, such as an ability 
to enter into a trance state. 

An apostle, on the other hand, is called to preach to others 
a divine message which is new to them, so that he cannot 
expect others to come looking for him nor expect to have 

Genius & Apostle [ 443 

any official spiritual status. While oracle and shaman §re, so 
to speak, radio sets through which at certain moments a god 
may speak, an apostle is an ordinary human messenger tike 
a man who delivers mail; he cannot wait for certain divinely 
inspired moments to deliver his message and, if his audience 
should ask him to show his credentials, he has none. 

In the case of any vocation of Genius, a man is called 
to it by a natural gift with which he is already endowed. A 
young man, for example, who tells his parents, “I am going 
to be a sculptor, cost what it may,” bases his statement on 
the conviction that he has been born with a talent for making 
beautiful, three-dimensional objects. It makes no difference to 
his decision whether he is a Christian who believes that this 
talent is a gift of God or an atheist who attributes it to blind 
Nature or Chance for, even if he is a believer, he knows 
that he is called by his gift, not by God directly. Since the 
gift is his, to say “I must become a sculptor” and “I want to 
become one” means the same thing: it is impossible to imag- 
ine anyone’s saying, “A sculptor is the last thing on earth 
I want to be, but I feel it is my duty to become one.” 

An Apostle, on the other hand, is called by God directly. 
Jehovah says to Abraham: “Go get thee up out of the land”; 
Christ says to Matthew, the tax-collector; “Follow me!” If 
one asks, “Why Abraham or Matthew and not two other 
people?” there is no human answer; one cannot speak of a 
talent for being an Apostle or of the apostolic temperament. 
Whatever ultimate spiritual rewards there may be for an 
Apostle, they are unknowable and unimaginable; all he 
knows is that he is called upon to forsake everything he has 
been, to venture into an unknown and probably unpleasant 
future. Hence it is impossible to imagine the apostolic call- 
ing's being echoed by a man’s natural desire. Any genuine 
Apostle must, surely, say, “I would not but, alas, I must.” The 
prospective sculptor can correcdy be said to will to become a 
sculptor — that is to say, to submit himself to the study, toil 
and discipline which becoming a sculptor involves — ^but an 
Aposde cannot correcdy be said to will an3rdiing; he can 
only say, “Not as I will, but as 'Thou wilt.” It is possible for 
a man to be deceived about a secular calling — he imagines 

The Shield of Perseus 

444 1 

he has a talent when in fact he has none — ^but there is an 
objective test to prove whether his calling is genuine or imag- 
inary: either he produces valuable works or he does not. A 
great sculptor may die with his works totally unrecognized by 
the public but, in the long run, the test of his greatness is 
worldly recognition of his work. But in the case of an 
Apostle there is no such objective test: he may make a million 
converts or he may make none, and we are still no nearer 
knowing whether his vocation was genuine or not. He may 
give his body to be burned and still we do not know. What 
makes an apostle a hero in a religious sense is not what he 
does or fails to do for others, but the constancy of his faith 
that God has called him to speak in His name. 

The message Brand has to deliver is drawn for the most part 
from Kierkegaard and may be summed up in two passages 
from Kierkegaard’s Journals. 

The Christianity of the majority consists roughly of 
what may be called the two most doubtful extremities 
of Christianity (or, as the parson says, the two things 
which must be clung to in life and death), first of all 
the saying about the little child, that one becomes a 
Christian as a little child and that of such is the King- 
dom of Heaven; the second is the thief on the cross. 
People live by virtue of the former — in death they 
reckon upon consoling themselves with the example of 
the thief. 

This is the sum of their Christianity; and, correctly 
defined, it is a mixture of childishness and crime. . . . 

Most people think that the Christian commandments, 
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, etc.” are in- 
tentionally oversevere, like putting one’s clock ahead to 
make sure of getting up in the morning. 

In some of Brand’s speeches, however, there is an emphasis 
on the human will which is Nietzschean rather than Kierke- 

Genius & Apostle [ 445 

A whole shall rise which God shall recognize, 

Man, His greatest creation. His close heir, 

Adam, young and strong. 

It is not 

Martyrdom to die in agony upon a cross 
But to will that you shall die upon a cross. 

These are not statements which Kierkegaard would have 
made. Indeed, he expressly says that there is a great difference 
between willing a martyrdom which God has willed for you 
and willing one for yourself before you know whether or not 
it is required of you, and that to will the second is spiritual 
pride of an extreme kind. 

Brand’s prophetic denunciations are directed against three 
kinds of life, the aesthetic life governed by the mood of the 
moment, the conventional life of social and religious habit, 
and the insane life of “The wild of heart in whose broken 
mind evil seems beautiful,” which, presumably, refers to the 
criminal as well as to the clinically insane. 

Ibsen did not, as Shaw might have done, make his play 
an intellectual debate. Brand has no trouble in demolishing 
the arguments of his opponents. There is a great deal more 
to be said for the aesthetic life than a ninny like Ejnar can 
put forward, and a belief in the value of habit, both in social 
and religious life, can and is held by wise good people; it is not 
confined to cowardly crooks like the Mayor and the Provost. 
The only antagonist who is in any way his equal is the doctor. 

doctor: I’ve got to visit a patient. 

brand: My mother? 

doctor: Yes . . . You’ve been to see her already per- 

brand: No. 

doctor: You’re a hard man. I’ve struggled all the 


Across the moor, through mist and sleet. 
Although I know she pays like a pauper. 

The Shield of Perseus 

446 ] 

brand: May God bless your energy and skill. 

Ease her suffering, if you can. . . . 

DOcrroR: Don’t wait for her to send for you. 

Come now, with me. 

BRAND: Until she sends for me, I know no duty there. 

doctor: . . . your credit account 

For strength of Mali is full, but, priest, 

Your love account is a white virgin page. 

Brand replies Mrith an outburst against the popular use of the 
word love as a veil to cover and excuse weakness, but this does 
not refute the doctor because the latter, by risking his life 
to ease the suffering of a dying woman, has proved that he 
means something quite different by the word. There is, how- 
ever, no dialectical relation between his position and Brand’s 
because his ethics are those of his profession. Brand has just 
refused to go and give his dying mother the sacrament be- 
cause she will not renounce her property. To the Doctor this 
seems gratuitous cruelty because he can only think about the 
care of sick souls in terms of the cure of sick bodies. In his 
world of experience a patient is either in pain or not in pain, 
and every patient desires to be well. He cannot grasp, because 
it is outside his professional experience, that, in the soul, a 
desire may be the sickness itself. Brand’s mother clings to 
her possessions with passionate desire, and to relinquish them 
will cause her great suffering but, unless she suffers, she can 
never know true joy. (The analogy to surgery does not hold. 
The patient must suffer now at the hands of the surgeon in 
order that he may be free from pain in the future, but he 
already knows what it means to be free from pain. 'The sinner 
does not know what it means to be spiritually happy; he only 
knows that to give up his sin will be a great suffering.) 

In the character of Brand Ibsen shows us an individual of 
heroic courage who exemplifies in his own life what he 
preaches and who suffers and dies for what he believes, but, 
as a religious hero, he won’t quite do. Our final impression is 
of a tragic hero of the conventional kind whose field of 
action happens to be religion, but whose motives are the same 

Genius & Apostle [ 447 

pride and self-will that motivate the tragic heroes of this 

If, as an apostle, Brand fails to convince us, the fault, I 
believe, is not due to lack of talent on Ibsen’s part, but to his 
mistaken approach. While, when he came to write Peer 
Gynt, he approached the dramatic portrayal of a genius in- 
directly, in tackling the portrayal of an apostle, he tried a 
direct approach and this was bound to fail. 

Thus, he gives us a picture of Brand’s childhood. Unlike 
Peer, poor Brand did not have women behind him, and in 
the end he has to drag Agnes after him. His mother had re- 
nounced marriage to the man she loved in order to marry one 
who was expected to make money. He failed and died, and 
she had denied all love and happiness both to herself and 
her son and devoted herself with absolute passion to the 
acquisition and hoarding of wealth. The relation between 
mother and son is one of defiant hostility mingled with re- 
spect for the other’s strength of will and contempt for senti- 
mentality masquerading as love. In preferring damnation to 
the surrender of all her goods, she shows herself every bit as 
much a believer in AIl-or-Nothing as Brand does in refusing 
to give her the^Sacrament unless she renounces her idol. Psy- 
chologically, mother and son are alike; the only difference be- 
, tween them is in the God whom each worships. 

Such a situation is dramatically interesting and psycho- 
logically plausible, but it inevitably makes us suspect Brand’s 
claim to have been called by the True God, since we perceive 
a personal or hereditary motivation in his thought and con- 
duct. Peer’s relation to his mother is a possible psychological 
background for a certain class of human being, the class of 
artist-geniuses. But every apostle is a member of a class of 
one and no psychological background can throw any light on 
a calling which is initiated by God directly. 

It is very difficult to conceive of a successful drama with- 
out important personal relations, and of such, the most in- 
tense is, naturally, the relation between a man and a woman. 
The scenes between Brand and Agnes are the most exciting 
and moving parts of the poem, but their effect is to turn 

The Shield of Perseus 

448 1 

Brand into a self-torturing monster for whose sufferings we 
can feel pity but no sympathy. Whether one agrees or dis- 
agrees with the insistence of the Roman Church that its 
priests be celibate — ^The Church Visible, after all, requires 
administrators, theologians, diplomats, etc., as well as apostles 
— the apostolic calling, ideally considered, is incompatible with 
marriage. An apostle exists for the sake of others but not as 
a person, only as a mouthpiece and a witness to the Truth; 
once they have received the Truth and he has borne his wit- 
ness, his existence is of no account to others. But a husband 
and wife are bound by a personal tie, and the demands they 
make upon each other are based on this. If a husband asks 
his wife to make this or that sacrifice, he asks her to make it 
for his sake, and his right to ask comes from their mutual 
personal love. But when an apostle demands that another 
make a sacrifice, it cannot be for his sake; he cannot say, “If 
you love me, please do this,” but can only say, “Thus saith the 
I.x)rd. Your salvation depends upon your doing this.” 

When Brand first meets Agnes, he is already convinced of 
his calling and aware that suffering, certainly, and a martyr’s 
death, possibly, will be required of him. His words and his 
risking of his life to bring consolation to a dying man reveal 
to her the falseness of her relation to Ejnar. At this point I do 
not think she is in love with Brand, but she is overwhelmed 
with admiration for him as a witness to the truth and prepared 
to fall in love with him if he should show any personal in- 
terest in her. He does show a personal interest — ^he is lonely 
and longing for personal love — they marry, they are mutually 
happy and they have a son, Ulf. Then comes disaster. Either 
they must leave the fjord and his work as the village priest — 
an act which Brand believes would be a betrayal of his calling 
— or their child must die. Brand decides that they shall re- 
main, and Ulf does die. One would have thought that the 
obvious solution was to send his wife and child away to a 
sunnier climate and remain himself (since he inherited his 
mother’s money, he has the means) but this solution does not 
seem to have occurred to him. (Of course if it had, the big 
dramatic scenes which follow could not have been written.) 

Genius & Apostle 

[ 449 

Later, he accuses Agnes of idolatry in not accepting UlFs 
death as the will of God and makes her give away all his 
clothes to a gypsy child. Possibly she is guilty of idolatry and 
should give the clothes away for the sake of her own soul and, 
were Brand a stranger, he could tell her so. But he is both 
the husband whom she loves and the father of her child who 
took the decision which caused the child’s death and so led 
her into the temptation of idolatry, so that when he tells her: 

You are my vdfe, and I have the right to demand 
That you shall devote yourself wholly to our calling 

the audience feels that he has no such right. This is only 
the most obvious manifestation of a problem which besets 
Ibsen throughout the play, namely, the problem of how to 
make an apostle dramatically interesting. To be dramatically 
viable, a character must not only act, but also talk about his 
actions and his feelings and talk a great deal : he must address 
others as a person — a messenger cannot be a major character 
on the stage. For dramatic reasons, therefore, Ibsen has to allow 
Brand to speak in the first person and appear the author of his 
acts, to say “I will this.” But an apostle is a messenger, and 
he acts not by willing but by submitting to the will of God 
who cannot appear on the stage. It is inevitable, therefore, 
that our final impression of Brand is of an idolator who wor- 
ships not God, but his God. It makes no difference if the God 
he calls his happens to be the true God; so long as he thinks 
of Him as his, he is as much an idolator as the savage who 
bows down to a fetish. To me, one of the most fascinating 
scenes of the play is Brand’s final encounter with Ejnar. Ejnar 
has had some sort of evangelical conversion, believes that he 
is saved, and is going off to be a missionary in Africa. Brand 
tells him of Agnes’ death, but he shows no sorrow, though 
he had once loved her. 

ejnar: How was her faith? 
brand: Unshakeable. 
ejnar: In whom? 

BRAND: In her God. 

The Shield of Perseus 

450 ] 

bjnar; Her God cannot save her. She is damned 

brand: You dare to proimunce judgment on her and me, 
Poor, sinning fool? 

BJNAR: My faith has washed me clean. 
brand: Hold your tongue. 
bjnar: Hold yours. 

Ejnar, is, as it were, a caricature of Brand, but the likeness 
is cruel. 

Though a direct portrayal of an apostle is not possible in art, 
there exists, though not in drama, one great example of a 
successful indirect portrayal, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. 

The Knight-Errant 

The Knight-Errant, whom Don Quixote wishes to become 
and actually parodies, was an attempt to Christianize the 
pagan epic hero. 

1) He possesses epic arete of good birth, good looks, 
strength, etc. 

2) This arete is put in the service of the Law, to rescue 
the unfortunate, protect the innocent, and combat the 

3) His motives are three: a) the desire for glory 

b) the love of justice 

c) the love of an individual 
woman who judges and 

4) He suffers exceptionally; first, in his adventures and 
collisions with the lawless; secondly, in his tempta- 
tions to lawlessness in the form of unchastity; and 
thirdly, in his exceptionally difficult erotic romance. 

5) In the end he succeeds in this world. Vice is punished 
and virtue is rewarded by the lady of his heart. 

When we first meet Don Quixote he is a) poor, b) not a 
knight, c) fifty, d) has nothing to do except hunt and read 

Genius & Aposde 

I 45 * 

nmances about Knight-Errantry. Manifestly, be is the 
posite of the heroes he admires, i.e., he is lacking in the epic 
arete of birth, looks, strength, etc. His situation, in fact, is 
aesthetically rininteresting except for one thing: his passion is 
great enough to make him sell land to buy books. This makes 
him aesthetically comic. Religiously he is tragic, for he is a 
hearer not a doer of the word, the weak man guilty in his 
imagination of Promethean pride. Now suddenly he goes 
mad, i.e., he sets out to become what he admires. Aesthetically 
this looks like pride; in fact, religiously, it is a conversion, an 
act of faith, a taking up of his cross. 

The Quixotic Madness and the Tragic Madness 

The worldly villain like Macbeth is tempted by an arete he 
possesses to conquer this world of the nature of which he has 
a shrewd idea. His decisions are the result of a calculation of 
the probabilities of success, each success increases his madness 
but in the end he fails and is brought to despair and death. 
(Don Quixote is a) lacking in arete, b) has a fantastic con- 
ception of this world, c) always meets with failure yet is never 
discouraged, d) suffers himself intentionally and makes others 
suffer only unintentionally. 

The Quixotic Madness and the Comic Madness 

The comic rogue declares: the world = that which exists to 
give me money, beauty, etc. I refuse to suffer by being 
thwarted. He is cured by being forced to suffer through colli- 
sion with the real world. 

Don Quixote declares: The world = that which needs my 
existence to save it at whatever cost to myself. He comes into 
collision with the real world but insists upon continuing to 
suffer. He becomes the Knight of the Doleful Countenance 
but never despairs. 

Don Quixote and Hamlet 

Hamlet lacks faith in God and in himself. Consequently he 
must define his existence in terms of others, e.g., I am the man 
whose mother married his uncle who murdered his father. 
He would like to become what the Greek tragic hero is, a 

The Shield of Perseus 

452 1 

creature of situation. Hence his inability to act, for he can 
only “act,” i.e., play at possibilities. 

Don Quixote is the antithesis of an actor, being completely 
incapable of seeing himself in a role. Defining his situation 
in terms of his own character, he is completely unreflective. 

Madness and Faith 

To have faith in something or someone means 

a) that the object of faith is not manifest. If it becomes 
manifest, then faith is no longer required. 

b) the relation of faith between subject and object is 
unique in every case. Hundreds may believe, but 
each has to believe by himself. 

Don Quixote exemplifies both, a) He never sees things 
that aren’t there (delusion) but sees them differently, e.g., 
windmills as giants, sheep as armies, puppets as Moors, etc. 
b) He is the only individual who sees them thus. 

Faith and Idolatry 

The idolater makes things out to be stronger than they 
really are so that they shall be responsible for him, e.g., he 
might worship a windmill for its giantlike strength. Don 
Quixote never expects things to look after him; on the con- 
trary he is always making himself responsible for things and 
people who have no need of him and regard him as an im- 
pertinent old meddler. 

Faith and Despair 

People are tempted to lose faith a) when it fails to bring 
worldly success, b) when the evidence of their senses and 
feelings seem against it. Don Quixote a) is consistently de- 
feated yet persists, b) between his fits of madness he sees that 
the windmills are not giants but windmills, etc., yet, instead 
of despairing, he says, "Those cursed magicians delude me, 
first drawing me into dangerous adventures by the appearance 
of things as they really are, and then presently changing the 
face of things as they please.” His supreme test comes when 
Sancho Panza describes a country wench, whom Don Quixote 
sees correctly as such, as the beautiful Princess Dulcinea and 

Genius & Apostle [ 453 

in spite of his feelings concludes that he is enchanted and that 
Sancho Panza is right. 

Don Quixote and the KnighuErrant 

Don Quixote’s friends attack the Romances he loves on the 
grounds that they are historically untrue, and lacking in style. 

Don Quixote, on the other hand, without knowing it, by 
his very failure to imitate his heroes exactly, at once reveals 
that the Knight-Errant of the Romances is half-pagan, and be- 
comes himsdf the true Christian Knight. 

Epic Dualism 

The world of the Romances is a dualistic world where the 
completely good and innocent fight the completely evil and 
guilty. The Knight-Errant comes into collision only with those 
who are outside the Law: giants, heretics, heathens, etc. 
When he is in one of his spells, Don Quixote, under the 
illusion that he is showing the righteous anger of the Knight- 
Errant, comes into collision with the law, i.e., he attacks inno- 
cent clerics and destroys other people’s property. 

When he is not deluded as to the nature of those he is trying 
to help, e.g., the convicts or the boy being thrashed, he only 
succeeds in making things worse and earns enmity, not grati- 


Don Quixote affirms all the articles of the Amor religion, 
namely, that a) the girl must be noble and beautiful, b) there 
must be some barrier, c) the final goal of the Knight’s trials is 
to be rewarded by having his love reciprocated. 

In fact, the girl he calls Dulcinea del Toboso is "a good 
likely country lass for whom he had formerly had a sort of 
inclination, though ’tis believed she never heard of it.” She is 
of lower social status, and he is past the age when sexual love 
means anything to him. Nevertheless, his behavior has all the 
courage that might be inspired by a great passion. 

i^ain, Don Quixote expects to be tempted to unchastity 
so that, in the inn when the hunchback maid is trying to reach 
the carter’s bed, he fancies that she is the daughter of the 

The Shield of Perseus 

454 1 

Cjovernor of the Castle, who has fallen in love with him and 
is trying to seduce him. Bruised and battered as he is, even 
Don Quixote has to admit that for the moment he has no 

The language is the language of Eros, the romantic idoliza- 
tion of the fair woman, but its real meaning is the Christian 
agape which loves all equally irrespective of their merit. 


The true Knight-Errant has nothing to do with the Lower 
Orders and must never put himself in an undignified position, 
e.g., Launcelot is disgraced by riding in a cart. Don Quixote 
attempts to do likewise but with singular unsuccess. He is 
constantly having to do with the Lower Orders under the 
illusion that they are the nobility. His aristocratic refusal to 
pay, which he adopts out of literary precedence, not personal 
feeling, never works out — he ends by overpaying. Again the 
language is the language of the feudal knight, but the be- 
havior is that of the Suffering Servant. This may be compared 
with the reverse situation in Moby Dick when Captain Ahab 
leaves his cabin boy in his captain’s cabin and mounts the 
lookout like an ordinary seaman; here the behavior is ap- 
parently humble, but is in fact the extremity of pride. 


The Knight-Errant is this-worldly in that he succeeds in 
arms and in love. Don Quixote professes a similar hope but in 
fact is not only persistently defeated but also cannot in the 
end even maintain in combat that Dulcinea is without a rival. 
Thus, he not only has to suffer the Knight's trials but also 
must suffer the consciousness of defeat. He is never able to 
think well of himself. He uses the language of the epic hero, 
but reveals himself to us as the Knight of Faith whose king- 
dom is not of this world. 

Don Quixote’s Death 

However many further adventures one may care to invent 
for Don Quixote — and, as in all cases of a true myth, they 
are potentially inBnite — ^the conclusion can only be the one 

Genius & Apostle 

[ 455 

which Cervantes gives, namely, that he recovers his senses 
and dies. Despite the protestations of his friends, who want 
him to go on providing them with amusement, he must say: 
“Ne’er look for birds of this year in the nests of the last: I was 
mad but I am now in my senses: I was once Don Quixote de 
la Mancha but am now the plain Alonso Quixano, and 1 hope 
the sincerity of my words and my repentance may restore me 
the same esteem you have had for me before.” 

For, in the last analysis, the saint cannot be presented 
aesthetically. The ironic vision gives us a Don Quixote who is 
innocent of every sin but one; and that one sin he can put off 
only by ceasing to exist as a character in a book, for all such 
characters are condemned to it, namely, the sin of being at all 
times and under all circumstances interesting. 

& ART 

Art is compatible with polytheism and with Christianity, but 
not with philosophical materialism; science is compatible with 
philosophical materialism and with Christianity, but not with 
polytheism. No artist or scientist, however, can feel comfort- 
able as a Christian; every artist who happens also to he a 
Christian wishes he could be a polytheist; every scientist in 
the same position that he could be a philosophical materialist. 
And with good reason. In a polytheist society, the artists are 
its theologians; in a materialist society, its theologians are the 
scientists. To a Christian, unfortunately, both art and science 
are secular activities, that is to say, small beer. 

No artist, qua artist, can understand what is meant by God 
is Love or Thou shalt love thy neighbor because he doesn’t 
care whether God and men are loving or unloving; no scientist, 
qua scientist, can understand what is meant because he doesn’t 
care whether to-be-loving is a matter of choice or a matter of 

To the imagination, the sacred is self-evident. It is as mean- 
ingless to ask whether one believes or disbelieves in Aphrodite 
or Ares as to ask whether one believes in a character in a novel; 
one can only say that one finds them true or untrue to life. 
To believe in Aphrodite and Ares merely means that one be- 
lieves that the poetic myths about them do justice to the forces 

Postscript: Christianity & Art [ 457 

of sex and aggression as human beings experience ihem in 
nature and their own lives. That is why it is possible for an 
archaeologist who digs up a statuette of a god or goddess to 
say vrith fair certainty what kind of divinity it represents. 

Similarly, to the imagination, the godlike or heroic man is 
self-evident. He does extraordinary deeds that the ordinary 
man cannot do, or extraordinary things happen to him. 

The Incarnation, the coming of Christ in the form of a servant 
who cannot be recognized by the eye of flesh and blood, but 
only by the eye of faith, puts an end to all claims of the 
imagination to be the faculty which decides what is truly 
sacred and what is profane. A pagan god can appear on earth 
in disguise but, so long as he wears his disguise, no man is 
expected to recognize him nor can. But Christ appears look- 
ing just like any other man, yet claims that He is the Way, 
the Truth and the Life, and that no man can come to God 
the Father except through Him. The contradiction be- 
tween the profane appearance and the sacred assertion is 
impassible to the imagination. 

It is impossible to represent Christ on the stage. If he is made 
dramatically interesting, he ceases to be Christ and turns into 
a Hercules or a Svengali. Nor is it really possible to represent 
him in the visual arts for, if he were visually recognizable, he 
would be a god of the pagan kind. The best the painter can 
do is to paint either the Bambino with the Madonna or the 
dead Christ on the cross, for every baby and every corpse 
seems to be both individual and universal, the baby, the 
corpse. But neither a baby nor a corpse can say I am the Way, 

To a Christian, the godlike man is not the hero who does 
extraordinary deeds, but the holy man, the saint, who does 
good deeds. But the gospel deflnes a good deed as one done 
in secret, hidden, so rar as it is possible, even from the doer, 
and forbids private prayer and fasting in public. This means 
that art, which by its nature can only deal with what can and 
should be manifested, cannot portray a saint. 

The Shield of Perseus 

458 1 

There can no more be a “Christian” art than there can he a 
Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only he a 
Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does 
not work. A painting of the Crucifixion is not necessarily more 
Christian in spirit than a still life, and may very well ^ less. 

I sometimes wonder if there is not something a bit question- 
able, from a Christian point of view, about all works of art 
which make overt Christian references. They seem to assert 
that there is such a thing as a Christian culture, which there 
cannot be. Culture is one of Caesar’s things. One cannot help 
noticing that the great period of “religious” painting coincided 
with the period when the Church was a great temporal power. 

The only kind of literature which has gospel authority is the 
parable, and parables are secular stories with no overt religious 

There are many hymns I like as one likes old song hits, be- 
cause, for me, they have sentimental associations, but the only 
hymns I find poetically tolerable are either versified dogma or 
Biblical ballads. 

Poems, like many of Donne’s and Hopkins’, which express a 
poet’s personal feelings of religious devotion or penitence, 
make me uneasy. It is quite in order that a poet should write a 
sonnet expressing his devotion to Miss Smith because the poet. 
Miss Smith, and all his readers know perfectly well that, had 
he chanced to fall in love with Miss Jones instead, his feelings 
would be exactly the same. But if he writes a sonnet expressing 
his devotion to Christ, the important point, surely, is that his 
devotion is felt for Christ and not for, say, Buddha or 
Mahomet, and this point cannot be made in poetry; the Proper 
Name proves nothing. A penitential poem is even more ques- 
tionable. A poet must intend his poem to be a good one, that 
is to say, an enduring object for other people to admire. Is 
there not something a little odd, to say the least, about making 
an admirable public object out of one’s feelings of guilt and 
penitence before God? 

^ostserift: CkrisHetnky & Art [ 459 

A poet who calls himself a Christian cannot but feel tmconi' 
fbrtable when he realizes that the New Testament contains 
no verse (except in the apochryphal, and gnostic, Acts of 
John), only prose. As Rudolf Kassner has pointed out: 

The difficulty about the God-man for the poet lies in the 
Word being made Flesh. This means that reason and 
imagination are one. But does not Poetry, as such, live 
from their being a gulf between them? 

What gives us so clear a notion of this as metre, verse 
measures? In the magical-mythical world, metre was 
sacred, so was the strophe, the line, the words in the 
line, the letters. The poets were prophets. 

That the God-man did not write down his words him- 
self or show the slightest concern that they should be 
written down in letters, brings us back to die Word 
made Flesh. 

Over against the metrical structures of the poets 
stand the Gospel parables in prose, over against magic 
a freedom which finds its limits within itself, is itself 
limit, over against poetic fiction (_Dichtung), pointing to 
and interpreting fact (Deutung). (Die Gehurt Christi.) 

I hope there is an answer to this objection, but I don't know 
what it is. 

The imagination is a natural human faculty and therefore 
retains the same character whatever a man believes. The only 
difference can be in the way that he interprets its data. At 
all times and in all places, certain objects, beings and events 
arouse in his imagination a feeling of sacred awe, while other 
objects, beings and events leave his imagination unmoved. 
But a Christian cannot say, as a polytheist can: “All before 
which my imagination feels sacred awe is sacred-in-itself, and 
all which leaves it unmoved is profane-in-itself. There are 
two possible interpretations a Christian can make, both of 
them, I believe, orthodox, but each leaning towards a heresy. 
Either he can say, leaning towards Neoplatonism: “That 
which arouses in me a feding of sacred awe is a channel 

The Shield of Perseus 

460 ] 

through which, to me as an individual and as a member of 
a certain culture, the sacred which I cannot perceive directly 
is revealed to me.” Or he can say, leaning towards pantheism; 
"All objects, beings and events are sacred but, because of my 
individual and cultural limitations, my imagination can only 
recognize these ones.” Speaking for myself, I would rather, 
if I must be a heretic, be condemned as a pantheist than as 
a Neoplatonist. 

In our urbanized industrial society, nearly everything we 
see and hear is so aggressively ugly or emphatically banal that 
it is difficult for a modern artist, unless he can flee to the 
depths of the country and never open a newspaper, to prevent 
his imagination from acquiring a Manichaean cast, from 
feeling, whatever his religious convictions to the contrary, 
that the physical world is utterly profane or the abode of 
demons. However sternly he reminds himself that the material 
universe is the creation of God and found good by Him, his 
mind is haunted by images of physical disgust, cigarette butts 
in a half-finished sardine can, a toilet that won’t flush, etc. 

Still, things might be worse. If an artist can no longer put 
on sacred airs, he has gained his personal artistic liberty in- 
stead. So long as an activity is regarded as being of sacred 
importance, it is controlled by notions of orthodoxy. When 
art is sacred, not only are there orthodox subjects which every 
artist is expected to treat and unorthodox subjects which no 
artist may treat, but also orthodox styles of treatment which 
must not be violated. But, once art becomes a secular activity, 
every artist is free to treat whatever subject excites his imag- 
ination, and in any stylistic manner which he feels appropriate. 

We cannot have any liberty without license to abuse it. The 
secularization of art enables the really gifted artist to develop 
his talents to the full; it also permits those with little or no 
talent to produce vast quantities of phony or vulgar trash. 
When one looks into the window of a store which sells 
devotional art objects, one can’t help wishing the iconoclasts 
had won. 

For artists, things may very well get worse and, in large areas 
of the world, already have. 

Postscript: Christianity & Art [ 461 

So long as science regards itself as a secular activity, ma- 
terialism is not a doctrine but a useful empirical hypothesis. 
A scientist, qua scientist, does not need, when investigatii^ 
physical nature, to bother his head with ontological or teleo- 
logical questions any more than an artist, qua artist, has to 
bother about what his feelings of sacred awe may ultimately 

As soon, however, as materialism comes to be regarded as 
sacred truth, the distinction between the things of God and 
the things of Caesar is reabolished. But the world of sacred 
materialism is very different from the world of sacred poly- 
theism. Under polytheism, everything in life was, ultimately, 
frivolous, so that the pagan world was a morally tolerant 
world — far too tolerant, for it tolerated many evils, like slavery 
and the exposure of infants, which should not be tolerated. It 
tolerated them, not because it did not know that they were 
evil, but because it did not believe that the gods were neces- 
sarily good. (No Greek, for example, ever defended slavery, 
as slave owners in the Southern States defended it, on the 
grounds that their slaves were happier as slaves than they 
would be as freemen. On the contrary, they argued that the 
slave must be subhuman because, otherwise, he would have 
killed himself rather than endure life as a slave.) 

But, under religious materialism, everything in life is, 
ultimately, serious, and therefore subject to moral policing. 
It will not tolerate what it knows to he evil with a heartless 
shrug — that is how life is, always has been and always will 
be — ^but it will do something which the pagan world never 
did; it will do what it knows to be evil for a moral purpose, 
do it deliberately now so that good may come in the future. 

Under religious materialism, the artist loses his personal 
artistic liberty again, but he does not recover his sacred 
importance, for now it is not artists who collectively decide 
what is sacred truth, but scientists, or rather the scientiBc 
politicians, who are responsible for keeping mankind in the 
true faith. Under them, an artist becomes a mere technician, 
an expert in effective expression, who is hired to express 
effectively what the scientific politician requires to be said. 


Homage to 
Igor Stravinsky 


Opera consists of significant situations in arti- 
ficially arranged sequence. 



Singing is near miraculous because it is the 
mastering of what is otherwise a pure instrument 
of egotism: the human voice. 


What is music about? What, as Plato would say, does it 
imitate? Our experience of Time in its twofold aspect, natural 
or organic repetition, and historical novelty created by choice. 
And the full development of music as an art depends upon a 
recognition that these two aspects are different and that choice, 
being an experience confined to man, is more significant than 
repetition. A succession of two musical notes is an act of 
choice; the first causes the second, not in the scientific sense 
of making it occur necessarily, but in the historical sense of 
provoking it, of providing it with a motive for occurring. A 

Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

466 ] 

successful melody is a self-determined history; it is freely 
what it intends to be, yet is a meaningful whole, not an 
arbitrary succession of notes. 

Music as an art, i.e., music that has come to a conscious reali- 
zation of its true nature, is confined to Western civilization 
alone and only to the last four or five hundred years at that. 
The music of all other cultures and epochs bears the same 
relation to Western music that magical verbal formulas bear 
to the art of poetry. A primitive magic spell may be poetry 
but it does not know that it is, nor intend to be. So, in all 
but Western music, history is only implicit; what it thinks 
it is doing is furnishing verses or movements with a repetitive 
accompaniment. Only in the West has chant become song. 

Lacking a historical consciousness, the Greeks, in their theories 
of music, tried to relate it to Pure Being, but the becoming 
implicit in music betrays itself in their theories of harmony in 
which mathematics becomes numerology and one chord is 
intrinsically “better” than another. 

Western music declared its consciousness of itself when 
it adopted time signatures, barring and the metronome beat. 
Without a stricdy natural or cyclical time, purified from every 
trace of historical singularity, as a framework within which 
to occur, the irreversible historicity of the notes themselves 
would be impossible. 

In primitive proto-music, the percussion instruments which 
best imitate recurrent rhythms and, being incapable of melody, 
can least imitate novelty, play the greatest role. 

The most exciting rhythms seem unexpected and complex, 
the most beautiful melodies simple and inevitable. 

Music cannot imitate nature: a musical storm always sounds 
like the vinrath of Zeus. 

A verbal art like poetry is reflective; it stops to think. Music 
is immediate, it goes on to become. But both are active, both 
insist on stopping or going on. The medium of passive reflec- 
tion is painting, of passive immediacy the cinema, for the 

Notes on Music and Of era [ 467 

visual world is an immediately mven world where Fate is 
mistress and it is impossible to tell the difference between a 
chosen movement and an involuntary reflex. Freedom, of 
choice lies, not in the world we see, out in our freedom to 
turn our eyes in this direction, or that, or to close them alto- 

Because music expresses the opposite experience of pure 
volition and subjectivity (the fact that we cannot shut our 
ears at will allows music to assert that we cannot not choose), 
film music is not music but a technique for preventing us 
from using our ears to hear extraneous noises and it is bad 
film music if we become consciously aware of its existence. 

Man's musical imagination seems to be derived almost ex- 
clusively from his primary experiences — ^his direct experience 
of his own body, its tensions and rhythms, and his direct 
experience of desiring and choosing — and to have very little 
to do with the experiences of the outside world brought to 
him through his senses. The possibility of making music, that 
is, depends primarily, not upon man’s possession of an audi- 
tory organ, the ear, but upon his possession of a sound-pro- 
ducing instrument, the vocal cords. If the ear were primary, 
music would have begun as program pastoral symphonies. 
In the case of the visual arts, on the other hand, it is a visual 
organ, the eye, which is primary for, without it, the experi- 
ences which stimulate the hand into becoming an expressive 
instrument could not exist. 

The difference is demonstrated by the difference in our 
sensation of motion in musical space and visual space. 

An increase in the tension of the vocal cords is conceived 
in musical space as a going “up,” a relaxation as a going 
“down.” But in visual space it is the bottom of the picture 
(which is also the foreground) which is felt as the region 
of greatest pressure and, as the eye rises up the picture, it 
feels an increasing sense of lightness and freedom. 

The association of tension in hearing with up and seeing 
with down seems to correspond to the difference between our 
experience of the force of gravity in our own bodies and our 

4^ ] Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

experience of it in other bodies. The weight of our own bodies 
is felt as inherent in us, as a personal wish to fall down, so 
that rising upward is an effort to overcome the desire for 
rest in ourselves. But the weight (and proximity) of other 
objects is felt as weighing down on us; mey are "on top" of 
us and rising means getting away from their restrictive pres- 

All of us have learned to talk, most of us, even, could be taught 
to speak verse tolerably well, but very few have learned or 
could ever be taught to sing. In any village twenty people 
could get together and give a performance of Hamlet which, 
however imperfect, would convey enough of the play’s great- 
ness to be worth attending, but if they were to attempt a 
similar performance of Don Giovanni, they would soon dis- 
cover that there was no question of a good or a bad perform- 
ance because they could not sing the notes at all. Of an 
actor, even in a poetic drama, when we say that his perform- 
ance is good, we mean that he simulates by art, that is, 
consciously, the way in which the character he is playing 
would, in real life, behave by nature, that is, unconsciously. 
But for a singer, as for a ballet dancer, there is no question 
of simulation, of singing the composer’s notes “naturally”; 
his behavior is unabashedly and triumphantly art from be- 
ginning to end. The paradox implicit in all drama, namely, 
that emotions and situations which in real life would be sad 
or painful are on the stage a source of pleasure becomes, in 
opera, quite explicit. The singer may be playing the role of 
a deserted bride who is about to kill herself, but we feel 
quite certain as we listen that not only we, but also she, is 
having a wonderful time. In a sense, there can be no tragic 
opera because whatever errors the characters make and what- 
ever they suffer, they are doing exactly what they wish. Hence 
the feeling that opera seria should not employ a contemporary 
subject, but confine itself to mythical situations, that is, 
situations which, as human beings, we are all of us necessarily 
in and must, therefore, accept, however tragic they may be. 
A contemporary tragic situation like that in Menotti’s The 

Notes on Music and Opera 

[ 469 

Consul is too actual, that is, too clearly a situation some people 
are in and others, including the audience, are not in, for die 
latter to forget this and see it as a symbol of, say, man’s 
existential estrangement. Consequently the pleasure we and 
the singers are obviously enjoying strikes the conscience as 

On the other hand, its pure artifice renders opera the ideal 
dramatic medium for a tragic myth. I once went in the 
same week to a performance of Tristan und Isolde and a 
showing of L'Eternal Retour, Jean Cocteau’s movie version 
of the same story. During the former, two souls, weighing 
over two hundred pounds apiece, were transfigured by a trans- 
cendent power; in the latter, a handsome boy met a beautiful 
girl and they had an affair. This loss of value was due not to 
any lack of skill on Cocteau’s part but to the nature of the 
cinema as a medium. Had he used a fat middle-aged couple 
the effect would have been ridiculous because the snatches 
of language which are all the movie permits have not sufficient 
power to transcend their physical appearance. Yet if the lovers 
are young and beautiful, the cause of their love looks “natural,” 
a consequence of their beauty, and the whole meaning of the 
myth is gone. 

The man who wrote the Eighth Symphony has a 
right to rebuke the man who put his rapture of elation, 
tenderness, and nobility into the mouths of a drunken 
libertine, a silly peasant girl, and a conventional fine 
lady, instead of confessing them to himself, glorying in 
them, and uttering them without motley as the uni- 
versal inheritance, (bernard shaw.) 

Shaw, and Beethoven, are both wrong, I believe, and 
Mozart right. Feelings of joy, tenderness and nobility are not 
confined to “noble” characters but are experienced by every- 
body, by the most conventional, most stupid, most depraved. 
It is one of the glories of opera that it can demonstrate this 
and to the shame of the spoken drama that it cannot. Because 
we use language in everyday life, our style and vocabulary 

47 ° 3 Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

become identified with our social character as odiers see us, 
and in a play, even a verse play, there are narrow limits to 
the range in speech possible for any character beyond which 
the pla)rwright cannot go without making the character 
incredible. But precisely because we do not commimicate by 
singing, a song can be out of place but not out of character; 
it is just as credible that a stupid person should sing beauti- 
fully as that a clever person should do so. 

If music in general is an imitation of history, opera in par- 
ticular is an imitation of human willfulness; it is rooted in 
the fact that we not only have feelings but insist upon having 
them at whatever cost to ourselves. Opera, therefore, cannot 
present character in the novelist's sense of the word, namely, 
people who are potentially good and bad, active and passive, 
for music is immediate actuality and neither potentiality nor 
passivity can live in its presence. This is something a librettist 
must never forget. Mozart is a greater composer than Rossini 
but the Figaro of the Marriage is less satisfying, to my mind, 
than the Figaro of the Barber and the fault, is, I think. Da 
Ponte’s. His Figaro is too interesting a character to be com- 
pletely translatable into music, so that co-present with the 
Figaro who is singing, one is conscious of a Figaro who is not 
singing but thinking to himself. The barber of Seville, on the 
other hand, who is not a person but a musical busybody, goes 
into song exactly with nothing over. 

Again, I find La Boheme inferior to Tosca, not because 
its music is inferior, but because the characters, Mimi in par- 
ticular, are too passive; there is an awkward gap between the 
resolution with which they sing and the irresolution with 
which they act. 

The quality common to all the great operatic roles, e.g., 
Don Giovanni, Norma, Lucia, Tristan, Isolde, Briinnhilde, 
is that each of them is a passionate and willful state of being. 
In real life they would all be bores, even Don Giovanni. 

In recompense for this lack of psychological complexity, 
however, music can do what words cannot, present the im- 
mediate and simultaneous relation of these states to each 
other. The crowning glory of opera is the big ensemble. 

Notes on Music and Opera 

[ 471 

The chorus can play two roles in opera aittl two t>nly, that 
of the mob and that of the faithful, sorrowing or rejoicing 
community. A litde of this goes a long way. Opera ia not 

Drama is based on the Mistake. I think someone is my friend 
when he really is my enemy, that I am free to marry a woman 
when in fact she is my mother, that this person is a chamber- 
maid when it is a young nobleman in disguise, that this 
well-dressed young man is rich when he is really a penniless 
adventurer, or that if I do this such and such a result will 
follow when in fact it results in something very different. All 
good drama has two movements, first the making of the mis- 
take, then the discovery that it was a mistake. 

In composing his plot, the librettist has to conform to this 
law but, in comparison to the dramatist, he is more limited 
in the kinds of mistake he can use. The dramatist, for instance, 
procures some of his finest effects from showing how people 
deceive themselves. Self-deception is impossible in opera be- 
cause music is immediate, not reflective; whatever is sung is 
the case. At most, self-deception can be suggested by having 
the orchestral accompaniment at variance with the singer, 
e.g., the jolly tripping notes which accompany Germonts 
approach to Violetta’s deathbed in La Traviata, but unless 
employed very sparingly such devices cause confusion rather 
than insight. 

Again, while in the spoken drama the discovery of the 
mistake can be a slow process and often, indeed, die more 
gradual it is the greater the dramatic interest, in a libretto the 
drama of recognition must be tropically abrupt, for music 
cannot exist in an atmosphere of uncertainty; song cannot 
walk, it can only jump. 

On the other hand, the librettist need never bother his 
head, as the dramatist must, about probability. A credible 
situation in opera means a situation in which it is credible 
that someone should sing. A good libretto plot is a melodrama 
in both the strict and the conventional sense of the word; it 
offers as many opportunities as possible for the characters to 
be swept off their feet by placing them in situations which 

Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

472 1 

are too tragic or too fantastic for “words.” No good opera plot 
can be sensible for people do not sing when they are feeling 

The theory of “music-drama” presupposes a libretto in 
which there is not one sensible moment or one sensible re- 
mark: this is not only very difficult to manage, though Wag- 
ner managed it, but also extremely exhausting on both 
singers and the audience, neither of whom may relax for an 

In a libretto where there are any sensible passages, i.e., 
conversation not song, the theory becomes absurd. If, for 
furthering the action, it becomes necessary for one character 
to say to another “Run upstairs and fetch me a handkerchief,” 
then there is nothing in the words, apart from their rhythm, 
to make one musical setting more apt than another. Wherever 
the choice of notes is arbitrary, the only solution is a con- 
vention, e.g., recitativo secco. 

In opera the orchestra is addressed to the singers, not to the 
audience. An opera-lover will put up with and even enjoy 
an orchestral interlude on condition that he knows the singers 
cannot sing just now because they are tired or the scene- 
shifters are at work, but any use of the orchestra by itself 
which is not filling in time is, for him, wasting it. Leonora 
III is a fine piece to listen to in the concert hall, but in the 
opera house, when it is played between scenes one and two 
of the second act of Fidelia, it becomes twelve minutes of 
acute boredom. 

If the librettist is a practicing poet, the most difficult problem, 
the place where he is most likely to go astray, is the composi- 
tion of the verse. Poetry is in its essence an act of reflection, 
of refusing to be content with the interjections of immediate 
emotion in order to understand the nature of what is felt. 
Since music is in essence immediate, it follows that the words 
of a song cannot be poetry. Here one should draw a distinction 
between lyric and song proper. A lyric is a poem intended to 
be chanted. In a chant the music is subordinate to the words 
which limit the range and tempo of the notes. In song, the 

Notes on Music and Opera 

[ 473 

notes must be free to be whatever they choose and die words 
must be able to do what they are told. 

The verses of Ah non credea in La Sonnamhula, though of 
little interest to read, do exactly what they should: suggest 
to Bellini one of the most beautiful melodies ever written and 
then leave him completely free to write it. The verses which 
the librettist writes are not addressed to the public but are 
really a private letter to the composer. They have their 
moment of glory, the moment in which they suggest to him 
a certain melody; once that is over, they are as expendable 
as infantry to a Chinese general: they must efface themselves 
and cease to care what happens to tnem. 

There have been several composers. Campion, Hugo Wolf, 
Benjamin Britten, for example, whose musical imagination 
has been stimulated by poetry of a high order. The question 
remains, however, whether the listener hears the sung words 
as words in a poem, or, as I am inclined to believe, only as 
sung syllables. A Cambridge psychologist, P. E. Vernon, once 
performed the experiment of having a Campion song sung 
with nonsense verses of equivalent syllabic value substituted 
for the original; only six per cent of his test audience noticed 
that something was wrong. It is precisely because ! believe 
that, in listening to song (as distinct from chant), we hear, 
not words, but syllables, that I am not generally in favor of 
the performances of operas in translation. Wagner or Strauss 
in English sounds intolerable, and would still sound so if the 
poetic merits of the translation were greater than those of the 
original, because the new syllables have no apt relation to 
the pitch and tempo of the notes with which they are asso- 
ciated. The poetic value of the words may provoke a com- 
>poser’s imagination, but it is their syllabic values which 
determine the kind of vocal line he writes. In song, poetry 
is expendable, syllables are not. 

"History,” said Stephen Dedalus, “is the nightmare from 
which I must awake.” The rapidity of historical change and 
the apparent powerlessness of the individual to affect Col- 
lective History has led in literature to a retreat from history. 

474 J Homge to Igor Smnm^ 

Instead of tracing the history of an individual who is bom, 
grou’s old and dies, many modem novelists and short story 
writers, beginning with Poe, have devoted their attention 
to timeless passionate moments in a life, to states of being. 
It seems to me that, in some modern music, I can detect the 
same trend, a trend towards composing a static kind of 
music in which there is no marked difference between its 
beginning, its middle and its end, a music which sounds 
remarkably like primitive proto-music. It is not for me to 
criticize a composer who writes such music. One can say, 
however, that he will never be able to write an opera. But, 
probably, he won’t want to. 

The golden age of opera, from Mozart to Verdi, coincided 
with the golden age of liberal humanism, of unquestioning 
belief in freedom and progress. If good operas are rarer today, 
this may be because, not only have we learned that we are 
less free than nineteenth-century humanism imagined, but 
also have become less certain that freedom is an unequivocal 
bleiising, that the free are necessarily the good. To say that 
operas are more difficult to write does not mean that they are 
impossible. That would only follow if we should cease to 
believe in free will and personality altogether. Every high C 
accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irre- 
sponsible puppets of fate or chance. 


If a ‘perfume manufacturer -were to adopt the 
"naturalistic" aesthetic, what kind of scents 
xaould he bottle? 


While we all know that every moment of life is a living 
moment, it is impossible for us not to feel that some moments 
are more lively than others, that certain experiences are clues 
to the meaning and essential structures of the whole flux of 
experience in a way that others are not. This selection is, 
in part, imposed by experience itself — certain events over- 
whelm us with their importance without our knowing why 
— ^and in part is due to a predisposition on our side, by 
personal temperament and by social tradition, to be open to 
some kinds of events and closed to others. Dante’s encounter 
with Beatrice, for example, was given him, but he would 
probably not have received or interpreted the revelation in 

Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

476 ] 

exactly the way that he did if the love poetry of Provence 
had never been written. On the other hand, many people 
before Wordsworth must have e^^rienced feelings about 
Nature similar to his, but they had dismissed them as not very 

Every artist holds, usually in common with his contempo- 
raries, certain presuppositions about the real Nature concealed 
behind or within the stream of phenomena, to which it is his 
artistic duty to be true, and it is these which condition the 
kind of art he produces as distinct from its quality. 

Suppose that a dramatist believes that the most interesting 
and significant characteristic of man is his power to choose 
between right and wrong, his responsibility for his actions; 
then, out of the infinite number of characters and situations 
that life offers him, he will select situations in which the 
temptation to choose wrong is at its greatest and the actual 
consequences incurred by the choice are most serious, and 
he will select characters who are most free to choose, least 
in the position to blame their choice afterwards on circum- 
stances or other people. 

At most periods in history he could find both of these most 
easily among the lives of the rich and powerful, and least 
among the lives of the poor. A king can commit a murder 
without fear of punishment by human law; a poor man can- 
not, so that, if the poor man refrains from committing one, we 
feel that the law, not he, is largely responsible. A king who 
steals a country is more interesting dramatically than a starv- 
ing peasant who steals a loaf, firstly because the country is so 
much bigger, and secondly because the king is not driven, like 
the peasant, by an impersonal natural need outside his control, 
but by a personal ambition which he could restrain. 

For many centuries the dramatic role of the poor was to 
provide comic relief, to be shown, that is, in situations and 
with emotions similar to those of their betters but with this 
difference: that, in their case, the outcome was not tragic 
suffering. Needless to say, no dramatist ever believed that in 
real life the poor did not suffer but, if the dramatic function 
of suffering is to indicate moral guilt, then the relatively 
innocent cannot be shown on the stage as suffering. The 

Cav & Pag 

[ 477 

comic similarity of ' their passions is a criticisni of the great, a 
reminder that the king, too, is but a man, and the difference in 
destiny a reminder that the poor who, within their narrower 
captivity, commit the same crimes, are, by comparison, inno- 

Such a view might be termed the traditional view of 
Western culture against which naturalism was one form of 
revolt. As a literary movement, nineteenth-century naturalism 
was a corollary of nineteenth-century science, in particular 
of its biology. The evidence of Evolution, the discovery of 
some of the laws of genetics, for example, had shown that 
man was much more deeply embedded in the necessities of 
the natural order than he had imagined, and many began 
to believe that it was only a matter of time before the whole 
of man’s existence, including his historical personality, would 
he found to be phenomena explicable in terms of the laws of 

If the most significant characteristic of man is the complex 
of biological needs he shares with all members of his species, 
then the best lives for the writer to observe are those in 
which the role of natural necessity is clearest, namely, the 
lives of the very poor. 

The difficulty for the naturalistic writer is that he cannot 
hold consistently to his principles without ceasing to be an 
artist and becoming a statistician, for an artist is by definition 
interested in uniqueness. There can no more be an art about 
the common man than there can be a medicine about the 
uncommon man. To think of another as common is to be in- 
different to his personal fate; to the degree that one loves or 
hates another, one is conscious of his or her uniqueness. All 
the characters in literature with universal appeal, those that 
seem to reveal every man to himself, are in character and situa- 
tion very uncommon indeed. A writer who is committed to a 
naturalist doctrine is driven by his need as an artist to be 
interesting to find a substitute for the tragic situation in the 
pathetic, situations of fantastic undeserved misfortune, and 
a substitute for the morally responsible hero in the patho- 
logical case. 

The role of impersonal necessity, the necessities of nature 

478 ] Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

or the necessities of the social order in its totality upon the 
human person can be presented in fiction, in epic poetry and, 
better still, in the movies, because these media can verbally 
describe or visually picture that nature and that order; but in 
drama, where they are forced to remain offstage — there can 
be no dramatic equivalent to Hardy’s description of Egdon 
Heath in The Return of the Native — this is very difficult. And 
in opera it is impossible, firsdy, because music is in its essence 
dynamic, an expression of will and self-affirmation and, sec- 
ondly, because opera, like ballet, is a virtuoso art; whatever 
his role, an actor who sings is more an uncommon man, more 
a master of his fate, even as a self-destroyer, than an actor who 
speaks. Passivity or collapse of the will cannot be expressed in 
song; if, for example, a tenor really sings the word "Piango,” 
he does not cry, a fact of which some tenors, alas, are only too 
aware. It is significant as a warning sign that the concluding 
line of CavaUeria Rusticana, "Hanno ammazzato compare 
Turiddu," and the concluding line of Pagliacci, "La corn- 
media I finita," are spoken, not sung. 

In practice, the theory of verismo, as applied to opera, meant 
substituting, in place of the heroic artistocratic setting of the 
traditional opera seria, various exotic settings, social and geo- 
graphic. Instead of gods and princes, it gives us courtesans (La 
Traviata, Manon'), gypsies and bullfighters CCarmen'), a diva 
(Tosca^, Bohemian artists (La Bohdme'), the Far East 
CMadama Butterfly^, etc., social types and situations every bit 
as unfamiliar to the average operagoer as those of Olympus or 

Giovanni Verga was no doctrinaire naturalist. He wrote 
about the Sicilian peasants because he had grown up among 
them, knew them intimately, loved them and therefore could 
see them as unique beings. The original short story CavaUeria 
Rusticana which appeared in Vita dei Campi (1880) differs 
in several important respects from the dramatized version 
which Veiga wrote four years later and upon which the 
libretto is based. In the short story the hero Turiddu is the 
relatively innocent victim of his poverty and his good looks. 
Santuzza is not the abused defenseless creature we know from 
the opera but a rich man’s daughter who knows very well how 

Cttv & Pag 

[ 479 

to look after herself. Turiddu serenades her hut he has no 
chance of marrying her since he has no money and though she 
likes him, she does not lose her head. Her betrayal to Alfio df 
Turiddu’s affair with Lola is therefore much more malicious 
and unsympathetic than it is in the opera. Finally, the reason 
that Turiddu gives Alfio for insisting upon a fight to the death 
is not Santuzza’s future — he has completely forgotten her — ^but 
the future of his penniless old mother. 

Santuzza’s seduction and pregnancy, Turiddu’s brutal re- 
jection of her, her curse upon him, his final remorse were all 
added by Verga when he had to build up Santuzza into a big 
and sympathetic role for Duse. As a subject for a short libretto, 
it is excellent. The situation is strong, self-contained and im- 
mediately clear; it provides roles for a convenient number and 
range of voices; and the emotions involved are both singable 
emotions and easy to contrast musically. The psychology is 
straightforward enough for song but not silly: how right it is, 
for instance, that Turiddu should reproach Santuzza for hav- 
ing let him seduce her — "Pentirsi ^ vano dopo Voffesa." 
Thanks to the swiftness with which music can express a 
change in feeling, even Turiddu’s sudden switch of attitude 
from contempt to remorse becomes much more plausible in the 
opera than it seems in the spoken drama. Targioni-Tozzetti 
and Menasci quite rightly stuck pretty closely to Verga’s 
story, their chief addition being the lines in which Turiddu 
begs Lucia to accept Santuzza as a daughter. But, having at 
their disposal as librettists what a dramatist no longer has, a 
chorus, they took full advantage of it. The choral episodes, the 
chorus of spring, the mule-driving song, the Easter hymn, the 
drinking song take up more than a quarter of the score. It 
might have been expected that, particularly in so short a work, 
to keep postponing and interrupting the action so much 
would be fatal; hut, in fact, if one asks what was the chief 
contribution of the librettists towards giving the work the 
peculiar impact and popularity it has, I think one must say it 
was precisely these episodes. Thanks to them, the action of 
the protagonists, their personal tragedy, is seen against an 
immense background, the recurrent death and rebirth of 
nature, the liturgical celebration of the once-and-for-all death 

480 ] Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

and resurrection of the redeemer of man, the age-old social 
rites of the poor, so that their local history takes on a ritual 
significance; Turiddu's death is, as it were, a ritual sacrifice in 
atonement for the sins of the whole community. One of the 
most moving moments in the opera, for example — and nothing 
could be less verismo — occurs when Santuzza, the excom- 
municated girl who believes that she is damned, is translated 
out of her situation and starts singing out over the chorus, like 
Deborah the Prophetess, "Inneggiamo il Signor non e mortor 

If the interplay of rite and personal action which is the 
secret of Cavalleria Rusticana is not a typical concern of the 
verismo school, the libretto interest of Pagliacci is even less 
naturalistic, for the subject is the psychological conundrum — 
‘'Who is the real me? Who is the real you?’' This is presented 
through three contradictions. Firstly, the contradiction be- 
tween the artist who creates his work out of real joys and 
sufferings and his audience whom it amuses, who enjoy 
through its imaginary joys and sufferings which are probably 
quite different from those of its creator. Secondly, the con- 
tradiction between the actors who do not feel the emotions 
they are portraying and the audience who do, at least imag- 
inatively. And, lastly, the contradiction between the actors as 
professionals who have to portray imaginary feelings and the 
actors as men and women who have real feelings of their own. 
We are all actors; we frequently have to hide our real feelings 
for others and, alone with ourselves, we are constantly the 
victims of self-deception. We can never be certain that we 
know what is going on in the hearts of others, though we 
usually overestimate our knowledge — both the shock of dis- 
covering an infidelity and the tortures of jealousy are due to 
this. On the other hand, we are too certain that nobody else 
sees the real us. 

In the Prologue, Tonio, speaking on behalf of Leoncavallo 
and then of the cast, reminds the audience that the artist and 
the actor are men. When we reach the play within the play all 
the contradictions are going simultaneously. Nedda is half- 
actress, half-woman, for she is expressing her real feelings in 
an imaginary situation; she is in love but not with Beppe who 
is playing Harlequin. Beppe is pure actor; as a man he is not 

in love with anybody. Tonio and Canio are themselves, for 
their real feelings and the situation correspond, to the greater 
amusement of the audience for it makes them act so convinc- 
ingly. Finally there is Nedda’s lover Silvio, the member of 
the audience who has got into the act, though as yet invisibly. 
When Nedda as Columbine recites to Harlequin the line writ- 
ten for her, ‘"A stannotte — e per sempre tua sard!" Canio as Pag- 
liaccio is tortured because he has heard her use, speaking as 
herself, these identical words to the lover he has not seen. One 
has only to imagine what the opera would be like if, with 
the same situation between the characters, the Commedia were 
omitted, to see how much the interest of the opera depends 
on the question of Illusion and Reality, a problem which is 
supposed only to concern idealists. 

About the music of these two operas, I can, of course, only 
speak as a layman. The first thing that strikes me on hearing 
them is the extraordinary strength and vitality of the Italian 
operatic tradition. Since 1800 Italian opera had already pro- 
duced four fertile geniuses, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and 
Verdi, yet there was still enough left to allow, not only the 
lesser but still formidable figure of Puccini, but also the talents 
of Ponchielli, Giordano, Mascagni and Leoncavallo to create 
original and successful works. Today, indeed — it may have 
seemed different in the nineties — we are more conscious in the 
works of these later composers of the continuity of the tradition 
than of any revolutionary novelty. We do not emerge from the 
house, after hearing Cavalleria or Pagliacci for the first time, 
saying to ourselves, ‘What a strange new kind of opera!” No, 
before the first ten bars are over, we are thinking: “Ah, an- 
other Italian opera. How jolly!” 

Comparing one with the other (a rather silly but inevitable 
habit), Leoncavallo strikes me as much more technically 
adroit. One of the strange things about Mascagni is the almost 
old-fashioned simplicity of his musical means; he writes as if 
he were scarcely aware of even the middle Verdi. There are 
dull passages in Cavalleria Rusticana, e.g., the music of the 
mule-driving song, but, in the dramatic passages, the very 
primitive awkwardness of the music seems to go with the 
characters and give them a conviction which Leoncavallo fails 

Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

482 ] 

to give to his down-at-heel actors. For instance, when I listen 
to Turiddu rejecting Santuzza in the duet, "No, no! Turiddu, 
rimani,” I can believe that I am listening to a village Don 
Giovanni, but when I listen to Silvio making love to Nedda 
in the duet, "Decidi, il mio destin,” I know that I am listening 
to a baritone. As a listener, then, I prefer Mascagni; if I were 
a singer, I daresay my preference would be reversed. 

In making their way round the world, Cav & Pag have had 
two great advantages: they are relatively cheap to produce 
and the vocal writing is effective but does not make excessive 
demands so that they are enjoyable even when performed by 
provincial touring companies, whereas works like La Gioconda 
or Fedora are intolerable without great stars. Take, for ex- 
ample, the famous aria “Vesti la giuhha”: if the singer is in 
good voice, he has a fine opportunity to put it through its 
paces; if his voice is going, he can always throw away the notes 
and just bellow, a procedure which some audiences seem to 

All the various artistic battle cries. Classicism, Romanticism, 
Naturalism, Surrealism, The-language-really-used-by-men, 
The-music-of-the-future, etc., are of interest to art historians 
because of the practical help which, however absurd they may 
seem as theories, they have been to artists in discovering how 
to create the kind of works which were proper to their powers. 
As listeners, readers and spectators, we should take them all 
with a strong dose of salt, remembering that a work of art is 
not about this or that kind of life; it has life, drawn, certainly, 
from human experience but transmuted, as a tree transmutes 
water and sunlight into treehood, into its own unique being. 
Every encounter with a work of art is a personal encounter; 
what it says is not information but a revelation of itself which 
is simultaneously a revelation of ourselves. We may dislike any 
particular work we encounter or prefer another to it but, to 
the degree that our dislike or our preference is genuine, we 
admit its genuineness as a work of art. The only real negative 
judgment — ^it may be ourselves, not the works, that are at 
fault — is indifference. As Rossini put it: “All kinds of music 
are good except the boring kind.” 


CWritten in collaboration with Chester Kallman) 

SILVA: The cup’s prepared, and so rejoice; 

And more, I’ll let thee have thy choice. 
(He proudly presents him a dagger and a cup of 

from an old translation of Emani 

To discover just how arrogant and stupid reviewers can be, 
one must write something in collaboration with another 
writer. In a literary collaboration, if it is to he successful, the 
partners to it must surrender the selves they would be if they 
were writing separately and become one new author; though, 
obviously, any given passage must be written by one of them, 
the censor-critic who decides what will or will not do is this 
corporate personality. Reviewers think they know better, that 
they can tell who wrote what; I can only say that, in the case 
of our collaborations, their guesses as to which parts were 
actually written by Mr. Kallman and which my myself have 
been, at a conservative estimate, seventy-five per cent wrong. 

Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

484 ] 

Ten years ago, if anybody had prophesied that we would 
one day find ourselves translating libretti, we would have 
thought him crazy, We had always been fanatic advocates of 
the tradition upheld by British and American opera houses of 
giving opera in its original tongue as against the European 
tradition of translation. If people want to know what is going 
on, we said, let them buy a libretto with an English crib and 
read it before coming to the opera house; even if they know 
Italian and German well, they should still do this because, in 
a performance, one rarely hears more than one word in ten. 
As regards performances in opera houses, we still feel pretty 
much the same way, but televised opera for mass audiences 
is another matter. Whether the TV audience could ever be 
persuaded to tolerate operas in foreign languages is doubtful, 
not only because mass audiences are lazy but also because, on 
a television set, every syllable can be heard so that the irritation 
caused by failing to understand what is said is greater than in 
an opera house. (And then, of course, the big broadcasting 
companies are willing to pay handsomely for translations and 
we saw no reason why, if a translation was going to be made, 
we shouldn’t get the money.) Once we started, we felt our 
aesthetic prejudices weakening for a reason which is not per- 
haps a valid one since it is purely selfish: we found ourselves 
completely fascinated by the task. 

The three libretti we have translated together so far are Da 
Ponte’s libretto for Don Giovanni, Schikaneder-and-Giesecke’s 
libretto for Die Zauberflote and Brecht’s text for the song- 
ballet Die sieben Todsiinden with music by Kurt Weill. Each 
has its special problems. Don Giovanni is in Italian, with sung 
recitatives and, stylistically, an opera giocosa; Die Zauberfldte 
is in German, written as a series of numbers with spoken 
dialogue in between and, stylistically, an opera magica. Die 
sieben Todsiinden is not a traditional opera in which, as Mozart 
said, "poetry absolutely has to be the obedient daughter of 
music,” but, like all the Brecht-Weill collaborations, a work in 
which the words are at least as important as the music, and its 
language is that of contemporary speech and full of popular 

Translating Opera Libretti [485 

In c(Hnparison with the ordinary translator, the translator of a 
libretto is much more strictly bound in some respects and much 
freer in others. Since the music is so infinitely more important 
than the text, the translator must start with the premise that 
his translation must demand no change of musical intervals or 
rhythms in order to fit it. This law is absolute for arias and 
ensembles; in recitative, occasions may arise when the drop- 
ping or addition of a note is justified, but they are very rare. 
The translator of a libretto, therefore, has to produce a version 
which is rhythmically identical, not with the verse prosody of 
the original as it would be spoken, but with the musical 
prosody as it is sung. The difficulty in achieving this lies in 
the fact that musical prosody is both quantitative, like Greek 
and Latin verse, and accentual like English and German. In 
a quantitative prosody, syllables are either long or short and 
one long syllable is regarded as being equal in length to two 
short syllables; in an accentual prosody like our own, the 
length of the syllables is ignored — metrically, they are re- 
garded as all being equal in length — and the distinction is 
between accented and unaccented syllables. This means that 
the rhythmical value of the trisyllabic feet and the dissyllabic 
feet are the reverse in a quantitative prosody from what they 
are in an accentual. Thus 

A quantitative dactyl or anapaest is In 4/4 or 2/4 time. 
(March time.) 

A quantitative trochee or iamb is in 3/4 or 6/8 time. 
(Waltz time.) 

An accentual dactyl or anapaest is in waltz time. 

An accentual trochee or iamb in march time. 

But in music both quantity and accent count: 

A 2/4 bar made up of a half note followed by two quarter 
notes is, quantitatively, a dactyl but, accentually, a 

A musical triplet jfj is, quantitatively, a tribrach but, 
accentually, a dactyl. 

To add to the translators’ troubles, the felt tempo of the spoken 
word and of musical notes is utterly different. If, timing myself 

4^6 ] Homage to Igor Stravinsky 

with a stop watch, I recite, first the most rapid piece of verse 
I can think of — ^The Nightmare Song from lolanthe, let us 
say — and then the slowest verse I can think of — ^Tennyson's 
Tears, idle tears — I find that the proportional difference be- 
tween the time taken in each case to recite the same number 
of syllables is, at most, 2 - 1 , and much of this difference is 
attributable, not to the change in speed of uttering the syllables 
but to the pauses in speaking which I make at the caesuras in 
the slow piece. Further, the two tempi at which I speak them 
both lie in what is in music the faster half of the tempo range. 
The tempo which in speaking verse is felt to be an adagio is 
felt in music as an allegretto. The consequence of this differ- 
ence is that, when a composer sets verses to a slow tempo, verse 
dactyls and anapaests turn into molossoi, its trochees and 
iambs into spondees. The line Now thank we all our God is 
iambic when spoken but spondaic when sung. 

This means that it is not enough for the translator to read 
the verses of the libretto, scan them, and produce a prosodic 
copy in English for, when he then matches his copy against the 
score, he will often find that the musical distortion of the 
spoken rhythm which sounded possible in the original tongue 
sounds impossible in English. This is particularly liable to 
happen when translating from Italian because, even when 
speaking, an Italian has a far greater license in prolonging or 
shortening the length of his syllables than an Englishman. 

Two Examples 

I ) In Leporello’s aria at the beginning of Don Giovanni 
occurs the line Ma mi par che venga gente (But it seems 
to me that people are coming). 

To begin with, we decided that Leporello must say 
something else. He is on guard outside the house where 
Don Giovanni is raping or trying to rape Donna Anna. 
Da Ponte’s line suggests that a crowd of strangers are 
about to come on stage; actually, it will only be Don 
Giovanni pursued by Donna Anna and some time will 
elapse before the Commendatore enters. Our first at- 
tempt was 

What was that? There's trouble brewing. 

Translating Opera JJbretH [ 487 

Spoken, che venga gente and there’s trouhle brewing 
sound more or less metrically equivalent, but the phrase 
is set to three eighth notes and two quarter notes, so that 
gente which, when spoken, is a trochee becomes a 
spondee. But brewing, because of the lack of consonants 
between the syllables, sounds distorted as a spondee, so 
we had to revise the line to 

What was that? We’re in for trouble. 

2) When Tamino approaches the doors of Sarastro’s 
temple, a bodiless voice cries Zuriick!, strongly accentuat- 
ing the second syllable. This looks easy to translate liter- 
ally by Go Back! and, were the tempo a slow one, it could 
be. Unfortunately, the tempo indication is ailegro assai 
and at that speed, the two English monosyllables sound 
like a nonsense disyallable geBACK. Another solution 
had to be found; ours was Beware! 

Sometimes the translator is forced to depart from the original 
text because of differences in the sound and association be- 
tween the original and its exact English equivalent. Take, for 
example, the simple pair, Ja and Nein, Si and No, Yes and 
No. In the Leporello-Giovanni duet Eh, via buffone which is 
sung allegro assai, Leporello’s two stanza’